At the heart of our collection for Autumn ‘23, Souvenirs of America, is the idea of different cultures meeting and exchanging ideas. Along with New York’s Chinatown, which served as the setting for Souvenirs, we spent time in the city’s Little Italy enclave to get a deeper understanding of the community there, and how two cultures interact.
One of New York’s most famous neighborhoods, Little Italy acts as an outpost of Italian culture in the heart of the melting pot of New York.
From Italian flags waving in the wind, to the smell of fresh pizza wafting from local restaurants, the area is a tribute to the immigrants who called this neighborhood home for generations.
Despite changes in the demographics of the area, it remains an important part of the fabric of the city: a piece of the Old World in the heart of America.
A Piece of Italy: E. Rossi & Company
The last of its kind in Little Italy, E. Rossi and Company is a century-old souvenir shop steeped in heritage. Ernesto "Ernie" Rossi, the grandson of the Italian founder of the same name, has lived in the area his entire life, and spent his childhood surrounded by a close-knit community.
“When I grew up here, it was a neighborhood, everyone knew everyone. I had aunts, uncles, and grandparents that lived right here on Mulberry Street. I actually went to school in Chinatown, where half the class was Chinese American, and the other half was Italian American. I grew up in a neighborhood where everyone knew everyone,” he said.
Ernie’s grandparents moved to Little Italy from Naples and Avellino in 1900, and in 1910 his grandfather set up the store, with his father and uncle joining the business as time went by.
“My grandfather lived on the fifth floor up at 171 Mulberry Street, just up the next block from the shop. When I was a teenager, my grandmother passed away, so my mother used to cook for my grandfather and I and I’d go and eat dinner with him and bring the dirty dishes back.”
As time has passed, many of the Italian Americans have moved away from the area or passed away, and Ernie misses the closeness of the community that has slowly disappeared. Despite this, he still holds on to fond memories of his grandfather and the simple moments they shared.
“Before I left my grandfather’s for the day, he’d say ‘Here’s some money, buy some pastry and come back tonight, I’ll wait for you, and we’ll have coffee’. I was a teenager you know, and I wanted to stay out late, so sometimes I’d come back at 11 pm with my friend Vinnie Peanuts, whose mother used to make nougat in her basement, and we’d have a coffee with him. I miss that.”
The Alleva Dairy: Preserving Tradition
While some of the community element of Little Italy may have gone, the area retains outposts of authenticity, particularly in the music and food it offers.
Nowhere is this truer than at The Alleva Dairy, the oldest cheese shop in America with over 130 years of history. Along with authentic Italian cheeses like ricotta and mozzarella, Alleva offers homemade sausages and other Italian specialties, representing a time-tested commitment to quality.
The dairy is run by Shaun Alleva, who is proud to carry on the five-generation tradition of promoting Italian food that has been passed down from his ancestors. Born and raised in Little Italy, Shaun has been a part of the community his entire life, and he sees himself as an important part of the Italian legacy in New York.
Shaun has worked at the dairy since his early teens and has a deep understanding of the shop and its place in the area, explaining that it made him proud to be keeping a family tradition alive.
Alleva has been a staple in Little Italy for over a century, and is a go-to place for locals, as well as for tourists looking for a small taste of authentic Italian American culture in New York.
Crucially, Alleva participate in community events like the Annual Feast of Gennaro, cementing their place as a contributor to a vital part of Italian culture in New York.
While the community spirit of Little Italy may be less visible than decades gone, it’s still present in an area that retains pride in its roots and flies the flag for a contrasting culture at the center of NYC.
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