On April 10, 1912, John Brescio’s grandfather boarded the Titanic with forged embarkation documents to come to America for the first time. Before setting sail, however, authorities kicked him off the ship. Though he was furious at the moment, he managed to make it to New York City on another boat. Alive.
Brescio, owner of Lombardi’s Pizza, said this about the close shave that led to his birth: “You see, destiny wouldn’t be talking to [me] right now had he gotten on that ship. It was a little twist of fate.”
It was in New York that his grandfather’s path crossed with Gennaro Lombardi, an immigrant baker from Naples. In 1905, Lombardi officially opened America’s first pizzeria, at 53 Spring Street in Manhattan, where he began serving up tomato pies and optimism for fellow Italian Americans. He helped many other immigrants find jobs and gave them a place to live.
“My father used to leave me there when I was 10 years old and [Lombardi’s] grandson and I would play all day in the restaurant,” Brescio said. “We would hit his grandfather in the head with dough. If we behaved, he’d make us a pizza pie.” John Brescio kept close ties with the Lombardis and acquired the family’s business in 1994, moving it just two doors down from its original location. That’s just one slice of a very big story that is Italy in New Y0rk. Here are a few other highlights:
When the Moon Hits Your Eye: Since Lombardi’s founding, other pizzerias have sprung up around town that still remain vestiges of Genarro’s contribution to the craft. This includes Totonno’s in Coney Island (whose owner trained with Lombardi); Grimaldi’s under the Brooklyn Bridge; Patsy’s in East Harlem; and John’s in the West Village. Try a pie, and you’ll leave saying, “that’s amore!” Or enjoy a slice of history with Scott’s Pizza Tours, which walks you through these establishments and around New York neighborhoods.
Touring Tenements: During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, scores of Italians emigrated to the United States where labor was in high demand. Some planned to stay and move their families here while others, known as Birds of Passage, traveled frequently between the U.S. and Italy, sending remittances home with plans to return.
At 97 Orchard Street in the Lower East Side, go back in time at the Tenement Museum: a renovated apartment building constructed in 1863, which once housed 7,000 immigrants. The “Hard Times” tour takes you through the life of the Sicilian Baldizzi family, one of the last families to live there until the tenement was vacated in 1935. The museum also offers neighborhood walking tours.
Leaving Little Italy, Manhattan: As China Town’s borders have expanded over time, Little Italy has grown smaller. Neighborhood locals, however, still boast about the area’s cornerstone spots that are more than worth a visit — if not for their history then for something tasty. This includes Di Palo’s Fine Foods, Ferrara Bakery and Café, and Alleva Dairy. Farther astray, neighborhoods like Arthur Avenue in the Bronx and Eighteenth Avenuein Brooklyn are commonly referred to as “the real Little Italy,” with a greater array of authentic Italian butchers, gourmet delicatessens, artisans, and higher populations of Italians. The long train ride is definitely worth the reward.
Eat Through Italy: At Eataly, near the Flatiron Building, get lost in an esculent Italian labyrinth. Meander from La Pasticceria, past Il Pesce, to Le Verdure and around every bend. Wine glasses toast Tuscan Chianti, fresh-baked onion focaccia bread sizzles, and pasta passes through a press into the hands of chefs who then prepare ravioli quadrati and tagliatelle. Eataly also offers classes at La Scuola di Eataly, most of which include wine tasting. Cin cin!
Dolce Far Niente: Sit back and enjoy the sweetness of doing nothing over an afternoon espresso. Eataly houses a café that serves one of Italy’s most popular coffee brands, Lavazza. Or head over to Caffé Reggio at 119 MacDougal Street, which is easily recognized by its brilliant green exterior and interior that boasts pieces of Italian Renaissance art. The original owner, Domenico Parisi – who converted his barbershop into today’s café in 1927 – was the first to introduce Italian cappuccino to America. The café still displays one of the earliest cappuccino machines (built in 1902), which was powered by coal.
When in Rome: At the intersection of Bleecker and Sixth Avenue, the church bells chime as you enjoy tiramisu gelato from Grom in the Italian-style piazza — Father Demo Square. Wander through Our Lady of Pompeii Church across the street, then stroll up Houston to Sullivan Street where you’ll find Church of St. Anthony of Padua. Formed in 1866, it is the oldest Catholic church in the United States established to serve Italian immigrants.
Check out Megan’s VIDEO, Italian New York
Resources and recommendations provided by John Brescio at Lombardi’s Pizza, Scott Weiner of Scott’s Pizza Tours, David Favaloro at the Tenement Museum, as well as Jerre Mangione and Ben Morreale authors of La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience. All photos: Megan Snedden.