By Lauren Yarger
Wish you grew up in Little Italy? You might just feel like you did after taking one of the new “local tours given by locals” hosted by Raffaele (Ralph) Tramontana, Ernest Magliato and Bill Bray.
All are born and bred in the vibrant community known as Little Italy, a neighborhood located in lower Manhattan roughly between Bayard , Bleecker, Lafayette and the Bowery, once home to many Italian immigrants coming to New York City in search of a new life. The tour guides welcome you like a long-lost relative visiting from the old country and point out places of interest (as well as their own childhood haunts) along the three-hour walking tour.
I attended a press preview and recommend it to all of you readers who contact me about shows and other interesting things to do while you are in the city. Ernest does most of the talking in conversational form, rather than memorizing a long, pat tour-guide shpeel. Ralph and Bill were sort of the “color commentators” adding information and personal stories about growing up in the neighborhood.
“Hi, Ralph,” called one woman from across the street as the tour walked by. This greeting of neighborhood friends continued throughout.
Ernest and Bill getting ready to start the tour at Most Precious Blood Church.
Beginning at Sambuca’s Café, which Ralph owns, the tour stopped next door at The Most Precious Blood Church, home of the national Shrine of San Gennaro, patron saint of Naples. (Ernest is a vendor at the saint’s annual feast, one of the largest street fairs in the country).
The tour heads down famous Mulberry Street to the Italian American Museum housed in the former Banca Stabile, which was the cultural center of Little Italy between 1890 and 1920. There immigrants could purchase steamship tickets, send telegrams back to the old country and exchange currency. The museum’s president Dr. Joseph V. Scelsa showed a short video about the museum and the area’s history (including a time during WWII when Italians were classified as “enemy aliens”) and noted interesting exhibits including a display honoring Luigi DelBianco, chief carver of Mount Rushmore, a sculpture titled “Resurrection” by Arturo DiModicau and memorabilia donated by Frank Serpico, the New York City cop famous for exposing corruption in the force in the early 1970s.
Next came a stop at DiPalo’s, one of New York’s premiere cheese and Italian gourmet shops, complete with samples of meat, cheese and wine enjoyed in the hanging-cheese trimmed store. Fourth-generation Tony DiPalo spoke about how some of the foods are made and Ralph shared a story about how his nephew put himself through college working for Tony.
The first American pizzeria, Lombardi's, above, and the oldest Italian bakery in Little Italy are points of interest along the way, as are other neighborhood buildings, like a school.
Bill and Ralph at Prince and Mulberry.
Before it was a school, Ralph, chimes in, it was an empty lot where the neighborhood kids played baseball. Also nearby is the corner of Prince and Mulberry streets, where “stickball” was born. And over there is where director Martin Scorsese , also a product of Little Italy, filmed the scene in one of his movies. Over there is a location from the TV series The Sopranos… and so it continues.
The church also is the home of New York’s only underground catacombs, now closed to the public. Renovations are underway to construct a stairway and glass panels in the church court yard allowing a peek into the tunnels and the guides hope to include them on the tour in the future. If they do, I can report that it will be an interesting experience because Msgr. Sakano found the key and took our press group on visit as a special treat.
Most of the tombs are sealed, but the crypt where Gen. Christopher Carleton Rice, above, was interred in 1848, is open and still boasts its original Edison light bulbs (below right).
The tour concludes with a meal at Grotta Azzurra Ristorante, a Little Italy landmark since 1908 and a frequent gathering place for the Rat Pack (the food is included in the tour price of $59.95).
The three hours sped by, and rain showers didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the guides or those enjoying the tour.
For more information or to book a tour, visit http://www.nyclittleitalytours.com/, call 646=720-9410, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Tickets also are available at E. Rossi & Co., 193 Grand St., at the Italian American Museum, 155 Mulberry St. or at Sambuca’s Café, 105 Mulberry St.
Tours leave seven days a week from Sambuca’s at 11 am and 3 pm sharp.