Ah, Little Italy in lower Manhattan. Nothing like it this side of Rome. Again, fortunate enough to be in walking distance to this gem of a neighborhood, spending time here is a very fond memory of childhood.
While not a short walk, anything that didn’t take us off Manhattan Island was considered “walking distance”, and so it was. This was a regular destination point for my family. The best Italian bakeries, the very best fresh fish, fruit and vegetables. The aromas from the push carts alone were mouth-watering. Yep, I did say push carts. Long gone today, when I was a kid, these wonderful carts literally lined the streets of Little Italy. Each had its “Specialty”: delicious fresh fruit, magnificent vegetables and yes, even fresh fish. Of course there were the usual Italian Ice carts and those selling amazing sausage and peppers. A walk to little Italy was a cacophony of sounds, sites and aromas, and walk there we did quite frequently.
Sunday after Church was a regular trip, perhaps not every week, but certainly more often than not. Much of the time found us standing line at Zito’s bakery on Bleeker Street to score some of the most incredible bread ever baked. To this day, I have not had fresh-baked bread like the bread we bought from Zito’s. A cup of fresh, hot coffee and a large piece of Zito’s bread lathered with butter? Heaven. And dipping that bread in good olive oil, with some peppers and onions? An even higher level of Heaven.
I remember Dad telling us over and over again that “Frank order’s his bread from here and has it flown to wherever he is… did you know that?” (Frank being, of course, Frank Sinatra.) There were no other “Franks” in our vocabulary. Yes, my Dad had a brother Frank, but when he referred to him it was “My brother Frank” or “Uncle Frank”. When “Frank” was used with no descriptive words before or after, we knew it was Sinatra, hands down, case closed. There was an old photo of “Frank” signed by the Chairman of the Board himself in the bakery, thus Rob and I had no doubt that Frank got his bread from Zito’s. God bless him, but Dad did find it necessary to repeat this historical fact every time we visited the store, but we didn’t mind, it was Little Italy, after all.
Sadly, this landmark bakery is no longer in existence, it closed forever in May of 2004. But, for our family, Zitos will always exist, and, have I mentioned that “Frank” bought his bread from there?
One of the highlights of the year for us was the Feast of St. Anthony. Every year, St Anthony’s Church, also located in Little Italy, would hold a wonderful street festival commemorating this important Saint. Other cities had their own festivals, but of course, I remember the one held near Houston and Sullivan streets in lower Manhattan. As a young child it was always going as a family, taking the substantial walk from our apartment to the Feast. The streets around the Church were filled with food booths, games, trinkets and of course, Zeppole’s.
What? Never had a Zepplole from New York’s little Italy? I feel sorry for you. My lord, the Zeppole’s were amazing. It’s basically an Italian Pastry that is a deep-fried dough ball with ricotta cheese, usually dipped in sugar… oh my goodness! Certainly not a healthy food, but I am speaking of a simpler time; no one cared, they were to die for. They came in a bag, usually ordered by the dozen. Fresh out of the frying vat, sprinkled in sugar, the bottom of the plain brown bag was quickly moist from the oil dripping off these little masterpieces. I swear I could eat a dozen myself. Walking around with the sights, sounds and aromas… and a bag of fresh hot Zeppoles? Could life get much better?
Of course there was the pizza. Always good, and living in Texas now, I certainly miss the Pizza. But, back in the day, everyone had their favorite Pizza place and it was safer to argue politics and religion than to convince someone that their place was not the best in New York. Johns, Rays, Patsy’s…. I would love to be near anything close to the pizza we were blessed with in New York.
But my favorite all time aroma of the feast, my favorite food of the feast…. the Sausage and Peppers. The aroma of frying Peppers and Onions, coupled with the grilling Italian Sausages wafted up into the atmosphere for miles around the feast. When you started to get a whiff of the Sausage and Peppers, you knew you were almost there. It seemed like every other booth was selling Sausage and Peppers, and as with Pizza, everyone had the “Best” booth to go to. I liked any and all. Crisp on the outside, soft on the inside fabulous Italian bread (probably from Zito’s, where Frank bought his bread from, don’t you know), filled with the finest fresh Italian sausage, literally swimming in fried Peppers and onions!! Many a good shirt was ruined trying to eat this delicacy “neatly”.
I swear, if I close my eyes…I can still see the booths and get a whiff of that awesome food. I miss that feast. I miss that simpler time in New York, just taking it all in.
And now, I have to go…. I have made myself hungry.