Food & Drink

The Definitive Guide to Eating in Little Italy

Umbertos Clam House
Umbertos Clam House | Cole Saladino/Thrillist
Umbertos Clam House | Cole Saladino/Thrillist

If you ask a New Yorker where to go for authentic Italian food, they’ll send you to South Brooklyn or Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. We just don’t flock to the city’s original Little Italy in Lower Manhattan like we used to. Visions of old-world red sauce joints where grandma stirs meatballs in the back are clouded by the reality of Mulberry Street today: a crowded restaurant row stacked with carnival-barker-like hosts imploring visitors to spend your money at their pasta mills.

But this is the city of second acts. The beloved hangers-on from the old days have kept the neighborhood alive for newcomers peddling lemon-infused blintzes and black truffle burgers alongside the classics like eggplant Parmesan and pasta pomodoro. So breeze past those tourist traps with their promises of gratuito Chianti and opt for our picks instead. Featuring the best cannoli bakery, a retro luncheonette, and an iconic meat and cheese shop: These are the best places to eat in Little Italy.

Best for fresh pasta: Aunt Jake's

151 Mulberry Street
Walk down Mulberry Street and bowtied restaurant hosts will beckon you into countless Italian-themed restaurants teeming with red gingham tablecloths, iffy house wine, and meh pasta. Aunt Jake’s is a beacon in the sea of tourist traps -- an oasis of fresh rigatoni, cavatelli, and farfalle mixed and matched with house-made lamb ragu, puttanesca, and Bolognese. Or, stop by on a Saturday night for their special steak Contadina for two.

Best for bagels: Baz Bagel

181 Grand Street
Baz brings traditional Jewish fare like latkes and blintzes to the historically Italian Grand Street. The retro luncheonette is fixed with swiveling diner stools and funky wallpaper fit for Florida’s coolest nursing home. They hand-roll and bake bagels on site, filling the carb-bombs with mounds of cream cheese and sandwich fixings. Sidle up to the counter for classic soda fountain favorites like the egg cream or lime rickey.

interior of Di Palo's Fine Foods
Cole Saladino / Thrillist

Best for meats and cheese: Di Palo's Fine Foods

200 Grand Street
Cured meats hang from the ceiling, slivers of imported cheese are sliced from enormous, rind-covered wheels, and clerks banter in Italian at this quintessential Little Italy specialty store. You should be so fortunato to call this your local spot, but it’s worth a trip (and occasional hour-long wait time) to stock up on prosciutto, pints of house-made ricotta, and fresh pasta. Samples abound, so flout conventional wisdom and shop hungry.

Best for a bespoke cocktail: Mulberry Project

149 Mulberry Street
Unmarked doors are the new flickering neon signs at New York City’s “speakeasies” -- and MP is no exception. This dark, narrow, subterranean space opens up into a backyard tucked within a fortress of neighboring walk-ups, perfect for outdoor imbibing when temperatures allow. The menu is categorized by flora flavor (lavender; blackberry; mint), or you can concoct a bespoke cocktail for $16.

two hands
Katie June Burton

Best for a delightful, divisive trend: Two Hands

164 Mott Street
So what if you won’t be buying a house anytime soon? Let your tears season the avocado toast at Two Hands, an Australian cafe on Mott Street. The millennial killer -- a thick slab of Bien Cuit whole grain pullman bread topped with smashed avocado, chili flakes, olive oil, and lemon -- will make a better Instagram post than a snap of your mortgage application, anyway. There are also heartier options for those eschewing the cursed snack: a fried egg and bacon breakfast roll and a burger with fries suitable for a future homeowner.

pastries from Ferrara Bakery in New York
Cole Saladino / Thrillist

Best for Italian pastries: Ferrara Bakery

195 Grand Street
Flashy and perpetually tourist-filled, Ferrara Bakery has been the sweetest spot on Grand Street since 1892. Flaky pastries like cream-packed sfogliatelle and miniature fresh fruit tarts sing a siren song from a seemingly unending pastry case. Do not leave without sampling the house-made cannoli: crisp shells filled with sweet, creamy ricotta and chocolate chips.

nickel and diner
Jonah Rosenberg

Best for a nouveau diner: Nickel & Diner

1 Howard Street
Nickel and Diner’s haute homage to five-and-dime lunch counters brings sleek turquoise counters, roomy booths, and elevated diner classics to Little Italy. Orange-scented buttermilk pancakes stand in for their flapjack ancestors and the classic chicken soup gets an upgrade with plump ricotta dumplings and a dash of ginger. At an even higher elevation, chestnut pappardelle swims in a veal ragout, and a black truffle burger is topped with fontina and caramelized onions. Throwback prices are the only nostalgic note they miss.

Umbertos Clam House
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Best for raw bar: Umberto's Clam House

132 Mulberry Street
True crime fans flock to Umberto’s, as famous for its food as it is for the 1972 slaying of New York mobster Joe “Crazy Joe” Gallo. The restaurant has since moved up the street, but tourists and gangster junkies alike continue to visit, fueled by the joint’s place in mafia history. Slake your morbid curiosity with littleneck clams and oysters from the raw bar and toast the ghosts of gangland past with a bloody mary.

Best for a cannoli: Caffe Palermo

148 Mulberry Street
A comically hubristic sign hangs outside of Caffe Palermo, boldly declaring its cannoli No. 1 on planet Earth. As we have yet to sample the rest of the world’s offerings, for now we’ll agree that it’s at least the best on Mulberry Street. The self-described “Cannoli King” does stand out in an area rife with soggy shells and cloyingly sweet cream. Chocolate chip studded ricotta is funneled through freshly fried shells and dusted with a coating of powdered sugar. Be sure to snap a selfie with the enormous cannoli statue outside.

brick oven pizza from Da Nico
Cole Saladino / Thrillist

Best for brick oven pizza: Da Nico

164 Mulberry Street
This place may look like the tourist traps we warned you about -- the waiters sport vests and ties and the bar is guarded by garden gnome-sized Italian chef sculptures -- but anything that comes out of their kitchen’s coal-fired oven is the real deal. They’ve got you covered with classic pies (margherita; bianca; salsiccia) and though they don’t advertise it, you can design your own as well. Don’t order dessert: They’ll send you a plate of powdered sugar-dusted zeppole on the house.

Best for when you want to dance on the table: Puglia

189 Hester Street
Sure, you could do the same at Tao on a Saturday night, but you’d miss Puglia’s inimitable mash-up of penne alla vodka and live piano renditions of ’90s-era Whitney Houston or Italian classics like “That’s Amore.” The restaurant, which opened in 1919, is outfitted with long tables suitable for large, rowdy parties sharing baked clams, manicotti, and veal Parmesan. As the night goes on the celebration gets livelier -- many evenings culminate in “The Napkin Song,” where everyone leaps from their seats, twirls their white napkins in the air, and bursts tunelessly into song.

Best for Italian-American classics: Benito One

174 Mulberry Street
This model red sauce spot has been serving no-frills Italian-American classics since 1968. Their vast and varied menu checks all the boxes. You’ve got your garlic bread; you’ve got your spaghetti with meatballs; you’ve got your chicken cacciatore; and, as of late, you’ve got your whole wheat and gluten-free options, too. This is your place for comfort food and no-questions-asked amounts of grated Parmesan.

Caffe Roma
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Best for a cappuccino: Caffe Roma

385 Broome Street
Founded in 1891, this coffee shop/bakery projects an aura of old New York. A green tin ceiling shines overhead and brassy wall sconces look almost as though they’re lit by fire. Even locals stir among the inevitable tourists, sipping expertly balanced espresso drinks with hunks of dense biscotti. Cappuccinos are served in tall transparent mugs to best display their dense microfoam. Pair one with a treat from the pastry case like mini pignoli cookies or a precisely iced Napoleon.

Best for date night: Il Cortile

125 Mulberry Street
At first glance, Il Cortile’s garish Roman columns and faux marble statues will draw side-eye from New Yorkers, but the Northern Italian standout is one of Little Italy’s finest. The open-air garden atrium will make you and your date feel like a couple of talking dogs sharing a romantic meal in an alleyway. Dig into plates of fettuccini di Parma or linguine cicale and call it bella notte.

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Amy Schulman is an Editorial Assistant at Thrillist who can often be found sampling cheese from Di Palo’s. Follow her on Instagram.