Il Cortile, LIttle Italy New York
Neighborhood: Chinatown/Little Italy
Purists may cry foul for merging Chinatown and Little Italy into one roundup, and true enough, there is not nearly enough space here to do justice to the incredibly rich cultural and immigrant history that has enriched this district for so many decades. But at the same time, these neighborhoods have coexisted since the 1800’s and now overlap. Ever-expanding Chinatown, home to the largest concentration of Chinese in the Western hemisphere, reaches from Lafayette Street in the West to Allen Street, adjacent to the Lower East Side, and from Worth Street in the South to, today, as far as Broome Street in the North. It is here where Chinatown has particularly encroached upon a shrinking Little Italy, now primarily comprised of a handful of blocks along Mulberry Street and a few adjacent streets.
In the absence of the thousands of Italians who once called this neighborhood home but then, with prosperity, moved on to other, more affluent parts of New York, Little Italy is a far cry from what once spanned along Mulberry from Canal Street in the South to Bleecker Street in the North. Today tourists flock to both Chinatown and Little Italy, but Chinatown is a far more ‘functional’ and authentic enclave in the sense that it remains home (albeit in the face of increasing gentrification) to a predominantly ethnic population. Hence all the businesses integral to the Chinese population’s day-to-day lives, from fruit and vegetable and fresh fish vendors through to local banks and small manufacturing are all still here. Along Canal Street is where one can find the many retailers selling cheap knock-offs of name brand merchandise like watches and sunglasses.
The sad truth of Chinatown and Little Italy is that there are a great many average – and, indeed, below average – eateries that cater purely to tourists and have tragically sent many of those same tourists home wondering what the heck all the fuss was about. This is especially true of Little Italy, where overpriced, tired or inauthentic old menus pale in comparison against some of the country’s best Italian restaurants to be found elsewhere in New York. Heck, you don’t even have to go that far - if you’re already in Little Italy, wander to the northern edge of the neighborhood and to Peasant in Nolita (194 Elizabeth St.).
Still, if you really do want to be able to say you’ve enjoyed an Italian meal here, there are a few places that can set you right. While many ‘tourists-in-the-know’ flock to Pellegrino’s (138 Mulberry St.) we would also suggest Il Cortile (125 Mulberry St.) and Angelo of Mulberry St. (146 Mulberry St.). At Il Cortile, highlights include a unique sausage, artichoke and mozzarella pie as well as the ‘Risotto con Funghi’, while at Angelo their ‘Costolette di Vitello Capicciosa’ (veal chop Milanese style) is consistently delicious, but a shared ‘Antipasto Caldo’ including mussels, clams, stuffed mushrooms and more will suffice as a light meal for two. Finally, if you’re tired of only Italian choices, we highly recommend a visit to La Esquina Corner Deli (114 Kenmare St.) for Mexican. Here’s you’ll find fresh, satisfying eats (they make great tacos) in a fun little space that offers outdoor seating during the warmer months.
Though much of Little Italy remains overpriced, cheap eats abound in Chinatown. Similarly, it’s just a matter of trying to figure out where the quality lies amid a dizzying sea of tourist traps. Since 1989, Bánh Mì Saigon Bakery (198 Grand St.) has been serving up delicious, inexpensive Vietnamese Bánh Mì sandwiches while fresh, super tasty steamed and baked buns at less than a dollar apiece are turned out from the kitchen at Mei Li Wah Bakery (64 Bayard St.). Afterward, to satisfy your sweet tooth, wander a little further along Bayard Street for traditional as well as unique flavors of ice cream at The Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory (65 Bayard St.). The queues can run long in the summer, but they tend to do a good job of keeping things moving.
For more substantial fare, a visit to Joe’s Shanghai Restaurant (9 Pell St.) to sample their popular soup dumplings is considered a Chinatown must for some New Yorkers, while others flock for Cantonese soup and barbecued pork and duck at Great N.Y Noodletown (28 Bowery St.). Dim sum devotees should pay a visit to Oriental Garden (14 Elizabeth St.) or Golden Unicorn (18 East Broadway). Both dining rooms are fairly manic and the service can be wildly uneven, but they are popular – and the wait staff very busy with good reason.
Drink options abound in this part of New York, and in the maze of Chinatown especially, several watering holes can be hard to find. For a classic Chinatown karaoke dive, look no further than Winnie’s (104 Bayard St.). The drink prices are a touch high, but it’s hard to beat karaoke at one dollar a song. Cheap drinks, pool and good music abound at Charles Hanson’s 169 Soul Jazz Oyster Bar (169 East Broadway), perhaps the only dive bar around (with a notorious past to boot) whose raw bar we would recommend trying. For something less gritty, venture to Brinkley’s (406 Broome St.), a Brit-style gastropub serving an impressive selection of local beers and good eats that keep the place busy with patrons (mostly young suits). The kitchen is open until 2am.
More inconspicuous -given there’s no signage to this speakeasy- is Mulberry Project (149 Mulberry St.). Signage or not, the word on this Little Italy bar is out, as the basement space with a small outdoor garden area is always teeming with hipsters and demands a reservation to get in. The venue’s mixologists have put together a small list of original cocktails, but are eager to be even more inventive- a brief chat detailing some of your favourite flavour profiles will generally be enough for them to concoct something special. Apothéke (9 Doyers St.), finally, is another speakeasy, this time in Chinatown, and worryingly the bartenders are all dressed up in white lab coats, in keeping with the ‘apothecary’ theme (the back bar is filled with hundreds of antique medicine bottles and the cocktail list is better known as ‘Prescriptions’). Happily what might sound kitsch actually works quite well, and the space is far more refined than one might have expected (think: less Frankenstein lab, more low light, elegantly furnished lounge). The bartenders are friendly and eager to help find the drink that’s right for you, but if there’s one beef, it may be that the bouncers tend to generate a lot of complaints for their cold attitude and inconsistent door policy. I know we’re trying to give the impression of a speakeasy, folks, but Prohibition ended a long time ago and there are plenty of other so-called speakeasies littered throughout the city, none of whom would be enjoying good business without having ‘let the word out’. Plus, when there’s an aforementioned dive bar serving oysters just a few blocks away… Well, as I said- it’s a good thing that options abound in this part of the city.