Little Italy Dupes Another Tourist

Haha, OK, I’ll come clean: Little Italy duped me. All this time, I thought that this…

Umberto's Clam House

…was this…

umbertosold2

In other words, that the Umberto’s I had always known was the same iconic restaurant that first opened in 1970, that had become infamous in 1972 when gangster “Crazy Joe” Gallo was gunned down in 1972, and that today disappeared for good under a coat of yellow paint.

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Then, as I was writing a post about the loss of such an iconic facade, I started comparing the two pictures above and I realized…

Umberto's Clam House

…something ain’t right.

umbertosold2

Turns out, I was fooled! This is actually the second Umberto’s location, and has only been in existence since 2000 – the first was originally located at 129 Mulberry a couple blocks south until 1996. About the only thing left is the Umberto’s name in the sidewalk out front.

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Meanwhile, Umberto’s has since moved to its third location, a sad little storefront nearby:

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I’ve been in Little Italy all week, and I gotta admit, of all the neighborhoods in Manhattan, I think Little Italy might depress me the most. Have you ever been to the Countries at Epcot, where they create kitschy miniature recreations of China or France? The Little Italy of today reminds me of what it would be like if Epcot created a version of historic Little Italy: a smidgen of history and culture, surrounded by endless crappy gift shops, overpriced restaurants selling subpar food, and silly recreations of what once had actual meaning to a world that has disappeared.

This is not the first time Little Italy has duped me. I will never forget the time I was eating in a Little Italy restaurant and started to speak Italian to the waiter, who had a HEAVY Italian accent and kept using various Italian expressions. He looked at me blankly for a second – then, the accent suddenly disappeared and he leaned over and whispered “I’m actually from Puerto Rico.”

What sucks about it to me is how much true history and culture is actually buried under all this nonsense. I can’t tell you how many tour guides I’ve overhead telling the Joe Gallo story at the wrong location to wide-eyed tourists clutching GANG STORIES OF NY pamphlets, and I believed right along with them. Turns out, it was just part of the kitsch.

And now a little bit of that kitsch has disappeared forever under a coat of yellow paint. C’est la vie.

-SCOUT

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24 comments

  1. Scout, incredible comment on Little Italy. I left NYC in 1972 and used to come back once a year. I visit every four years now and completed
    a stint a few weeks back. NYC, for all intents and purposes is gone!
    Jewish Deli’s? Forget it. Second Ave. Deli, Ratner’s and small mom and pop stores totally finished. Italian Pizzeria’s? You have to be kidding. AND LITTLE ITALY? Well that’s where a few of us went to eat and it is the saddest of neighborhoods that are no longer. We had a Serbian waiter, who was awesome, but everyone cooking wouldn’t know
    where Italy was if you paid ‘em a million bucks. I love your site Scout because you dig up the past that made NYC the grittiest most fun place
    anyone could imagine. Now? It’s like a Hollywood set with no substance.

  2. Oh, poor Scout! A classic NYC-n00b mistake. You’ve just not lived here long enough!

    You’re absolutely right, of course: little Italy is essentially gone. Chinatown, for one, has almost completely overrun it–geez, Chinatown goes all the way up into the Bowery restaurant-supply district now! But this is what happens when certain immigrant populations move up and move out. There’s not a huge influx of Italian immigrants, and those who lived in Little Italy decades ago have moved up the economic and residential ladders. All that’s left is a theme park.

  3. The last time I was up there I actually avoided Little Italy. If I want to go to an Italian neighborhood, I go all the way out to Arthur Ave. For even a better Chinatown the one out in Queens is better. Not trying to put down Manhattan, since that’s what most turistas this NYC is, But when I go up there I try to get out of Manhattan to the other boroughs.

  4. You are so all over the place Scout, taking excellent pictures, telling excellent stories, we shall forgive you the occasional ‘mistake.’ :) Looking forward to the next entry!

  5. why the disney hate? unnecessary!

    • I don’t think he was really hating on Disney, but even as a huge fan myself, the Epcot neighborhoods AREN’T authentic. That’s all he was saying, is that Little Italy has lost it’s soul.

      • Oh totally – I’ve been pretty open on the blog about my unapologetic love of Disney World. It’s just that I prefer my Epcot countries within the Orlando borders to enjoy, and not on Mulberry Street.

  6. I’ve decided the key with all ethnic neighborhoods in NYC, especially if you’re looking for good food, is to skip whatever the historical area is in Manhattan and find one in the outer boroughs.

  7. It pains me to reads some of these comments. The city you knew 40 or 50 years ago? 40 or 50 years before that, the city was different again. Back in the 60s and 70s, there were probably plenty of residents lamenting the loss of their favourite hangouts.

    Everything changes, but history remains. Little Italy is lost, but there are plenty of gritty streets and neighbourhoods untouched be gentrification if you care to look. It’s still an amazing city with plenty of stories to tell. And in 40 years it’ll be a different city again.

    Love your blog, Scout!

    • Well said, Paul. Part of the excitement of NYC is that it is always evolving. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to accommodate the influx of new immigrants just as New York welcomed Italians who settled Little Italy. Before Italians, the neighborhood may have been Irish before that, Dutch or English earlier, and before that, of course, Native American. Some groups prosper and move to swankier digs, and others create the melting pot with the newer groups. NYT did a good piece on Little Italy earlier this year: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/22/nyregion/22littleitaly.html?_r=1&pagewanted=2

  8. Having given a few tours of Little Italy myself, yes, I tell the Joey Gallo story while in sight of the newer Umberto’s. I always mention that it was NOT the same location as it was then. I don’t know if everyone get’s that. They see the sign, and it’s real to them. Likewise, in Harlem, there’s a “Cotton Club” that is NOWHERE NEAR the original (again, I always mention that) but all the cameras go off as they take pictures of the “real” (in their minds) Cotton Club.

  9. I remember a scene in the “Sopranos” where these 2 thugs try to shakedown this old butcher shop, when the owner tells the he’s closing down and the building has been sold to make condos. They step outside look around and say “what’s happening to the old neighborhood”. Great scene. I remember the old Times Square, Coney Island (Steeplechase Park) and Third Avenue with the Antique shops, yes it’s all gone, and you can’t go home again. FYI I found the Steeplechase Carousel it’s been restored and is in Japan, there’s a YouTube video.
    Wonderful website you have.

  10. The new Umberto’s was already up-and-running by at least Summer ’99. That was my first visit to Little Italy (I ate further down the block at Benito I).

    It’s true what you say about Little Italy being a depressing Disneyfication of its past (like much of the rest of the city), but last time I was on Mulberry Street I actually found it somewhat refreshing to not be surrounded by holier-than-thou artisanal types and their exclusive establishments which proliferate in other parts of Manhattan.

  11. I absolutely agree with the text. I have supper there in 1988 (on the first location) and realy there was an Italian flavor and one wall full of pictures of famous people, I asked for the Joey Gallo one (I’m a great great Dylan fan)and the maitre looked at me as I had done a million times offering me a menu as a souvenir and saying: Gallo was a gangster! Wow, this maitre looked like a gangster too!!

  12. Like every neighborhood, Little Italy was at its best when it was a genuine product of, by, and for its own community. It became Little Italy through a natural process of Italians living there and bringing their culture with them. The moment the idea of creating plastic tourist-friendly versions of their culture to for outsiders to gawk at and pay for took hold, it ceased being an organic living community and became just another artificially-flavored, pre-packaged product for those who don’t know any better. It’s like going to Mexico and finding it full of nothing but Taco Bell.

  13. It would have been better if Little Italy had gone the way of Yorkville and simply lost its ethnic character. That would be more dignified than being a tourist trap/theme park.

    In the long run it’s pretty much impossible for any white ethnic neighborhood (except for Orthodox/Hasidic Jewish ones) to maintain its character. The “melting pot” is not a completely obsolete cliche.

  14. Of course, Little Italy is gone, CBGB is gone, the sweet decadence of the 70′s is gone… but something remains and will not be gone. It’s the Magic of NYC, and it is in every corner, in every street, in the air. And that’s what I like best about NYC.

  15. I really like you site but in this regard you are a little disingenuous for us Italians that still live here and are working hard to keep it a livable neighborhood. I other American cities they put up gaslight districts in NYC they bring in investors from other country’s that play us for suckers – that goes back as far as Henry Hudson. NYC is all about money not people it never was and never will be.
    You might find a Greek shucking clams in Rome passing himself off as Italian. Italian food sells, now as for the neighborhood; My grandparents came here in 1906 and I’m still here – do I like what has happened in the Little Italy district “No” but this is 2011 and it has been a tourist rip-off area as long as I can remember. If I go to a restaurant on Mulberry st I get treat like a tourist that is life get over it. Ringing your hands after the fact does not help the Italians in this neighborhood that are working to keep the what is left of the emigrant culture and history alive. http://www.italianamericanmuseum.org/
    http://www.boweryalliance.org/bowery_historic_district_effort

  16. Anyone reporting problems with the photo contest email address? I can’t get my email to go through! (Sorry to threadjack).

  17. Thanks Scout! thanks for posting such great stories and your photos… they are amazing! Keep up the good work!

  18. I agree. While much of NY’s magic is how it evolves, it depresses me greatly to see such changes that swallow its history and identity rather than add to it and landmark it. As Scout pointed out, it’s getting to the point where no one remembers the truth of NY anymore… and for what? Baby Gaps and bad knock-off food? I’ll pass. It kills me to see Little Italy becoming a tourist attraction and suburb of Chinatown.

    Thanks for the great stories and photos! I love your blog!

  19. Totally agree about Little Italy. You want Little Italy? Go to Arthur Ave in the Bronx!

  20. So – what’s the story on the authenticuty or connection of the Umberto’s in da Bronx? I just came across it last weekend.

  21. Great post, Scout! It’s sad how authenticity is getting harder and harder to come across, even in New York. Thanks for digging up the truth under all that kitsch.

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