If you are on a perpetual quest for the very best homemade ravioli and cannoli, there’s a good chance you’ve wound up in Little Italy, La Piccola Italia, a time or two. This designation exists in many cities across the United States. It signifies the pocket of a town where Italian immigrants flocked between the years of 1800 and 1924, when more than four million Italians relocated to America.
Like most diasporas, the Italian immigration was born out of necessity. Southern Italians fled to escape dire poverty, and the Risorgimento — the movement for Italian unification and independence — spurred wars that drove out the Northerners.
Clusters of immigrants settled together here in part because of language barriers and familiarity, and often because it was where they had family or friends who had already immigrated. But these ethnic enclaves still serve as important cultural centers today, even several generations deep.
Today, Italians are one of the largest ethnic groups in the United States. And thanks to Little Italys across the country, they have one of the best-preserved cultures out of all the major ancestral identifiers. Besides the famed Mulberry Street in Lower Manhattan, there are many significant Little Italy communities throughout the U.S. Here are a few noteworthy examples.
New York: Manhattan
Since it served as the backdrop to films like “The Godfather” and “Donnie Brasco,” Manhattan’s Little Italy is indeed one of the best-known. It runs for only three blocks along Mulberry Street, a paltry size for a neighborhood that used to encompass parts of the Lower East Side, SoHo and Chinatown. One of the best examples of the neighborhood’s deeply rooted Italian traditions is the annual Feast of San Gennaro festival, which follows the Naples tradition of celebrating Saint Januarius, the patron saint of Naples.
New York: The Bronx
Even the most inclusive New Yorkers sometimes forget that there’s an equally vibrant Italian neighborhood in The Bronx. Along Arthur Avenue in the Belmont neighborhood, you’ll find many old-school Italian restaurants and cultural centers. Like its downtown counterpart, the Bronx’s version also has some Hollywood street cred. Scenes from “The Sopranos” were shot here, and Italian-American film director Martin Scorsese hails from nearby.
Los Angeles’ Little Italy is unique in that it doesn’t actually exist anymore. In fact, though the city has the fifth-largest Italian population, there’s little left to show for it. L.A. once had a bustling Italian neighborhood along Olvera Street and North Main, which is now closely linked to Los Angeles’ Mexican population. But you can still find some remnants of that era today, as it is home to the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles.
It seems unlikely, but San Diego’s Little Italy is in fact the largest Little Italy in the United States. The hilly neighborhood is built around commercial India Street, where visitors and locals will find plenty of Italian restaurants, bakeries and bars.
For the better part of the 20th century, the Italian inhabitants of this Southern California Little Italy led a massive tuna empire, leading to San Diego’s nickname as the “tuna capital” of the western U.S. Once a humble fishing village, it is now a popular urban neighborhood with plenty of Italian pride.
Unsurprisingly, the Italian influx to Cleveland came by way of New York. Many of the relocated Italians followed master artisan Giuseppe Carabelli, who relocated to Cleveland from New York to open a sculpting and masonry business. Carabelli’s many employees and workers helped to forge Cleveland’s place as a hotbed for stone work.
Today, Cleveland’s Italian neighborhood centers around the area where Carabelli set up his factory, atop a hill on Mayfield Road. The nearby Holy Rosary Church and plenty of Italian eateries still signify its ethnic roots.
Many More to Discover
These are just some of the country’s most significant and well-known Italian-American neighborhoods, but several cities have their own versions that still thrive in many parts of the country. In fact, almost every state has some historically Italian area. These neighborhoods serve as important reminders of the American Dream, and they’re not a bad place to pick up some homemade pasta or cannoli, either!