At the end of the nineteenth century, when America was taking in “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” Little Italy settled more than 40,000 tired and poor Italians, mainly from Naples and Sicily. New arrivals recreated little towns and villages they left behind here on the streets of New York. The Sicilians settled on Elizabeth Street, the Genovese on Baxter Street, while the Northern Italians chose Bleecker Street. In fact, in the late 1930s, Little Italy population was 98 percent Italian! Stretching from Canal to Houston Street and Lafayette Street to the Bowery, it was the poorest Italian enclave in New York. Once their finances improved, the inhabitants happily relocated to better locations uptown.
These days, Little Italy shrunk to just a few blocks around Mulberry Street, having been devoured by the ever-growing neighboring Chinatown. The Italian flavor of the neighborhood is mostly a veneer: restaurants, cafés, and shops are catering to tourists, while the population is no longer Italian.
Nevertheless, what’s left of Little Italy is still charming and tasty. The neighborhood with the feel of turn-of-the-century immigrant nostalgia seems to be set to the sounds of The Godfather’s score. It’s so cinematic that it’s hard to separate it from many familiar movie scenes that were filmed on the streets of Little Italy.
Little Italy is the setting for Francis Coppola‘s The Godfather (1972) trilogy – a family saga of the fictional Corleone family that comes to New York from Sicily. A masterpiece of filmmaking, regarded as one of the most influential films ever made, it was filmed on location in New York, with many important scenes shot in Little Italy.
Mott street was a location for key scenes in Godfather I
- Don Corleone is gunned down outside the Mietz Building, 128 Mott Street. In the movie, it’s Genco Olive Oil, Corleone’s business front.
- Opposite, number 137 Mott Street, was the greengrocer stall at which Don Corleone buys oranges before being gunned down.
Elizabeth Street was a background for Godfather II
- Joey Zasa is gunned down during the Italian-American street festival on Elizabeth Street.
- Young Don Corleone follows Don Fanucci on the rooftops, the scene is a combination of 6th Street rooftops and a festival along Elizabeth Street.
Mulberry Street is featured in Godfather III
- Vincent and Mary Corleone drank at Mare Chiaro, now the Mulberry Street Bar, 176 Mulberry Street
- The christening takes place in the Old St Patrick’s Cathedral, 264 Mulberry Street, between East Prince and Houston Streets.
6th street between Ave A and B in the East Village was closed off for filming and turned into a movie set.
Martin Scorsese, an American film director who gave us films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Casino, and many more, grew up in Little Italy. Mean Streets (1973) is set on the mean streets of 1970s Little Italy. Little Italy changed so much since the 1970s that most locations are no longer recognizable.
Another movie classic inspired by Little Italy is Once Upon A Time in America, directed by Sergio Leone (1984)
This gritty drama chronicles the lives of a group of Lower East Side gangsters-friends from youth to adulthood. Like Mean Streets and The Godfather, it stars Robert De Niro, who grew up in the area, making the films even more authentic. Even though the film was filmed in various locations in Bronx, Brooklyn, Cinecittà Studios in Rome, Gare du Nord in Paris, Hoboken Terminal in NJ, Montréal, Venice, and Lake Como, Italy, the narrative of the story takes place in the vicinity of the Manhattan Bridge.
Breaking with the gangster mafia theme, there is a lovely romantic comedy Moonstruck directed by Norman Jewison (1987) and set in Little Italy and Brooklyn.