The East Coast Book Tour: Part Three:
A stroll down Mulberry St.
It was a wonderful ride up through New Jersey to Penn Station in New York City. My sister and I embarked on the adventure like we were kids again in downtown Chicago riding the EL to visit Marshall Field’s. Of course Field’s is now a Macy’s but that’s okay. I’m not a purist. Anyway when we got off the train and what should be within our view but the MACY’S of all of them. We walked over to 34th Street, yes the very one where the self proclaimed Largest Store of the World stands and was featured in the classic film: The Miracle on 34th St. After our nostalgic visit we were off down Broadway to EATALY, the fairly new Italian food wonderland of which I wrote in an earlier article. Then our sights were set on “Little Italy.” Of the many times I have visited New York, this would be only my second time in this historic district in which remnants of the Italian immigrants stand witness to the waves of immigrants which flooded America’s shores seeking a new life filled with hope. It was like being at “Festa Italiana” on Milwaukee’s lake shore in July but we were in New York and it was October.
We left Broadway and turned left onto Prince St. looking for Mulberry St. which serves as the heart of “Little Italy.” Throngs of people followed us or perhaps the other way around as all headed for that beating heart reminiscent of a time long past. Mulberry St. is lined with Italian Restaurants one after the other, most with outdoor seating as well, right on the sidewalk. All had charming interiors reflecting a theme or region of Italy. We walked past “La Nonna” and Novella Restaurants where on our first visit we enjoyed wonderful meals. But we wanted to try something new. Across the way red banners with gold letters spelling out S.P.Q.R. (Latin for Senate and People of Rome) waved over the restaurant of that name. In their lobby was a huge stone head of Michelangelo’s David. “That’s the place,” I announced. After all, my book revolves around the life and times of Michelangelo who created the David. So we simply had to eat there. As with each of the food establishments a host stood out front encouraging you to view their menu specials and come in to feast on their delights. Some even invited you in Italian. It’s was fun just listening to these gentlemen excitedly announcing the menu of their particular restaurant. Trust me; you will be hard pressed to make a decision, for each of them wonderfully presents a delightful environment and tempting menu, with wine to boot, at a special price. We were not to be disappointed. My sister ordered clams with Linguini which she proclaimed superb, made as it should be and delicious. For me, it was the Gnoochi in tribute to my Mother who is the queen of gnocchi makers. These are Italian potato dumplings of sorts in a Pomodoro sauce in my case. And when they brought out the Olive Oil and Balsamic vinegar to mix with the freshly grated Romano cheese to dip our bread into, I thought I was back in Rome itself.
I struck up a conversation with our waiter and his assistant who was being trained as a wait staff person. I learned that each of the restaurants on Mulberry St. is still owned by an Italian family and that their Chef in each was also Italian. However, 90% of the wait staff was from Albania, as was he and his assistant. He pointed out quickly that Albania and Italy were neighbors and shared similar characteristics as well. His tall lean frame, thick black hair, gracious manners and what my sister called a face for Michelangelo to paint bore witness to that observation. To me, this change served as a reminder of how as each wave of immigrants became assimilated into the culture of theUnited States, they left the neighborhoods to enter the mainstream of American life. Now these Albanian immigrants serve where the Italians once served. Later in our walk to the Financial District, another example of my view could be seen in Columbus Park south of where we had eaten. It was filled not with children of Italians but of the new Americans, Asian Americans, whose children play in the park and whose elderly citizens play chess on the stone tables.
Before we headed for the southern part of Manhattan however, I had to get a little shopping done. There were Christmas stockings which would need filling and I as we walked past numerous little shops which also line Mulberry St. spilling onto Canal St., where throngs of people gravitated to purchase leather purses, sun glasses, watches and jewelry, hats and scarves, fun wear and leisure wear, those special New York tee shirts made their way into my hands. The pulsating diversity of the Big Apple is no where more evident than in this Historic District and for me it was a delightful experience just to walk up and down Mulberry peering into the restaurants and visiting the shops.
At the intersection of Grand St. and Mulberry St., I noticed a Marquee of sorts extending out over the sidewalk. Above it a movie cinema type lighted sign announced the name of “Ferrara.” My sister and I reeled back for a moment and were taken back to each of our wedding days, which happened to be only six weeks apart back in Chicago. We looked at each other in wonder. “Could they be related to the family who operated The Ferrara Manor?” Our wedding receptions were held in what was once a grand old movie house typical of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Huge marble staircases, ornate trim with classical statues adorning the alcoves took one’s breath away. It had been restored during the 60’s into a Banquet facility and thus it’s grand Ballroom with the gilded Dome and box seats used by the bands which played at weddings and civic parties were preserved. Of course time has a way of changing things and the Ferrara Manor is no more but right in front of us was this Marquee with two giant Ice Cream Cones accenting its corners. Of course it was Gelato (Italian Ice Cream) and this was no old movie theater but the Ferrara Bakery and Café in “Little Italy” of New York City.
We had to have our dessert there, no question about it. We entered with a sense of wonder and awe as to our left where cases containing luscious looking pastries which extended down the length of the Café. On the right and in the rear were seating areas as typically rendered in a classic film, not stark as in “West Side Story” more like those seen in a Hollywood musical. In fact, I half expected to hear Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly singing “New York,New York, what a wonderful town” as we entered.
A blond woman dressed entirely in black greeted us with a friendly smile and escorted us to a table in the back facing out so that we could see the entire Café’ and out onto Grand St. She in turn took a seat across from us in a booth where a young man, an older woman and later a middle aged man joined her. My sister and I busily perused the menu with all its scrumptious delights and decided to try the trio of mini pastries (We selected the Éclair, Cream Puff and raspberry tart). Janice ordered a Cappuccino, which she proclaimed to be the greatest. Its huge frothy top was heavenly. I of course stuck to my Diet-Coke with a slice of lemon. Needless to say, the pastries melted in your mouth.
While enjoying our dessert the blond woman was kissing the older lady as she left for the preparation area of the Café. Here was my chance to ask the burning question. Was the Ferrara family related to the family of the same name in Chicago? And so I did present the inquiry. What resulted was a sharing of family roots, our kid’s colleges and the cost of education today, and the history of the Ferrara Café’. First, their son who sat with them represented the fifth generation of the family run business, which as it turns out also ships their delicious treats (www.ferraracafe.com). Secondly, they knew of the Chicago Ferrara family who still runs the Ferrara Pan Candy Co. but they were not related. Then when we mentioned that I was from Wisconsin and my sister from Philadelphia the conversation switched to Anthony, their son. He was a graduate of St. Joseph College in Philadelphia with a major in Marketing, which as it turned out was also my youngest son’s major.
Our focus changed when they asked what brought us toNew York. I told them about my Book Tour from Washington, D.C. to Florida, to Philadelphia. They immediately suggested that with a book like “The Stone Cutter Genius” which takes its characters from the United States to Italy, what better place is there than to have a book signing in “Little Italy.” So they offered to host such an event the next time I came to New York. We exchanged cards and off we went toward the World Trade Center Ground Zero site and the 9/11 Memorial for which I had gotten tickets for a 5:15 p.m. visitation.