Formerly the home of 10,000 southern Italians living in “the foul core of New York’s slums” (according to reformer Jacob Riis) when Italian Americans most definitely were not privileged, Little Italy is less Italian today, with only 10 percent of that number claiming Italian heritage. The nearing completion of the rebuilt Italian American Museum will, hopefully, revitalize a shrinking ethnic neighborhood that is the home of the oldest pizzeria in the United States, was the setting for the fictional The Godfather and nonfictional organized crime, hosts the annual Feast of San Gennaro, and, of course, boasts fantastic food.
I decided to throw a little much-needed money toward my paesani by having lunch in this iconic neighborhood. Considering the oldest restaurant in Little Italy passed its centennial anniversary a few years back, Da Nico Ristorante is a virtual bambino. Opened in 1993, it has been family-owned and -operated ever since. I entered the bar area and walked through the exposed-brick hallway with photos of the Da Nico’s past patrons—everyone from Steve Buschemi and Joe Pesci to Keith Richards and many of the New York Yankees—to the garden in the rear, where it’s surprisingly quiet given the restaurant’s location in a very congested neighborhood. I took a seat under the glass canopy, where single sunflowers in clear balls dangle from the greenery at the tops of the posts and keep things cheery. Black lanterns on yellow walls and trees and pillars wrapped with fairy lights lend a touch of amore. There are no surprises on the menu if you’re familiar with Italian staples, but the food is so authentic and delightfully tasty that you’ll be eager to return with your famiglia.
Try This: Start with a light and refreshing salad of mixed greens, fresh strawberries, and gorgonzola cheese, served with a vinaigrette dressing and freshly baked flat bread. The veal parmigiana is perfectly tender, dripping with gooey mozzarella, and accompanied by spaghetti in a flavorful marinara sauce, or you can opt for the chicken piccata coated with a tart and buttery lemon sauce. You may want to skip dessert altogether when you’re served complementary zeppole, appropriately doughy and dusted with powdered sugar.
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