Little Italy is different than it was three years ago — it is shrinking, giving ground to Chinatown. A few blocks of Mulberry Street, between Canal and Broom, contains the last remnants of this once-thriving neighborhood.
We park the car in a small lot on Mulberry just north of Canal Street and clamber out to stretch our legs and find a place to eat. There is plenty of parking available; perhaps we are just early. It is only 6 o’clock, and humid heat still hangs in the air, making an outdoor meal seem much less appetizing.
We stroll up and down Mulberry, noting the changes. Souvenir stalls are interspersed among pastry shops and restaurants, selling mechanical frogs that swim in a bucket of water on the pavement to entice tourists. Lots of NYPD shirts hang on pasteboard next to model cars and cheap jewelry.
We choose a restaurant after skimming menus and evaluating the friendly greetings and eye contact made with several hosts. Inside, we are the first people seated, and I hope it is not as bad as we have heard in lower Manhattan. I wonder how many of these businesses will be here next year.
Our food is delicious — all Italian restaurants in Little Italy are of higher quality than any place in L.A. — and I spend an enjoyable hour half-listening to my family’s conversation and half-watching people pass by outside the restaurant. When we are all incredibly full, we move on to Ferrara’s at the corner of Mulberry and Grand. It is the world’s best pastry shop. Seriously.
A sign hanging from the ceiling proclaims that Ferrara’s first opened in 1892. I wonder how the proprietors felt on the first day they opened their doors to do business. Did they have refrigeration? Were the counters sparkling clean? Did business take off immediately or build slowly, over a period of many years? I wonder what the owners would think if they knew their store is still a hub of activity that serves an incomparable product in a charming atmosphere. I buy a box of 10 miniature pastries and spend the next several hours imagining how they will taste when I am truly hungry again.
On the way back to the car, we stop by the church of San Gennaro, but after crossing the bare concrete courtyard and following a small path through flowering plants, the door is locked. We walk around the block, intending to enter from the front, but the gate is shut, and several boys lounging on the front steps tell us the church is closed. I have been inside it before, so I am not upset, but I can tell my aunt wanted to go.
There’s nothing much left to do, unless we feel like wandering around Chinatown as the 10 miniature pastries slowly spoil in the heat, so we head back to the car and drive back through the Holland Tunnel to my aunt’s house.