Asking for and giving restaurant and bar recommendations is one of New Yorkers’ greatest joys (almost as much as debating the best subway routes to get there), and since starting at NYU three years ago, I get a million questions about where to eat in the West Village. One of the remarkable things about the village, is that there are still quite a few Italian pastry shops, butcher shops, and pizzerias that have been open since the 19th century. This neighborhood, which is not usually identified as Italian, is the best place to go for so many wonderful Italian American goods, especially at the holidays. Many of these places are owned by families that have owned them for 100 years, and all of them are part of a long history of Italian American families in this area.
The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation is working to name the South Village as a historic district, and was able to get the first third identified as a preservation district in 2010. This area is between Sixth and Seventh Avenues and south of West 4th street. In a document “The Italians of the South Village,” the GVSHP notes that many of the streets of the South Village still contain the same tenements and storefronts that lined the blocks in the 19th century. This neighborhood reflects its Italian past in a way that many areas of the village and Little Italy do not, and is part of a push for historic preservation that shows the history of the way Italian Americans in the Village lived, worked, and shopped.
One of the most important ways that the GVSHP identifies the culture of the South Village is in the institutions and places that are explicitly Italian American. These include St. Anthony of Padua Church, the oldest Italian church in America, and areas like LaGuardia Place that is named after Fiorello LaGuardia, mayor of New York from 1934 to 1945, who was born in the Village.
They also identify the Italian bakeries and restaurants that have been continually operating since the 19th century, in the same families, as an important cultural part of Italian American life in the village. The report makes a compelling argument for the naming of the South Village as a Historic District, and so far they have been quite successful. You can read it at the GVSHP website, Italians in the South Village.
Many of these stores are not particularly searchable online or on yelp, and have customers made up of people who have heard about their reputations or whose families have been shopping there for years. Rafetto’s on West Houston between Sullivan and MacDougal makes some of the best fresh pasta in the city. Pasticerria Rocco on Bleecker makes incredible Italian cookies and cannoli. You can also go to Ottomanelli and Sons Meat Market down the street on Bleeker and buy meat that some of the best chefs in the city purchase. That is before you even consider where to get pizza, since many of the oldest pizza shops in the city are in this area. These stores epitomize a kind of shopping that has been superceded by mega grocery stores, where you buy each ingredient at a different place. All of these remarkable stores bring incredible food to the neighborhood while showing newcomers and visitors how important the Italian American identity was to this neighborhood.