Little Italy bottomed out in 1985, when there were only three Italian eateries left on a two-block stretch of Mulberry Street, and the neighborhood’s engulfment by Chinatown seemed imminent. Nowadays, Little Italy is booming, and there are dozens of restaurants. The painfully similar menus flaunt southern Italian fare, though they often put on northern airs. Most Italian-food fans will warn you away, and if you need further discouragement, walk down the street and find yourself hounded by touts. Zagat captured the essence years ago, when it said of a popular spot: “The food is atrocious, but the party is great; bring 20 friends, sing along, and eat on fraternity row for a night.”
In a visit to several places for this piece, I found most to be undistinguished pumpers of red sauce. Even the highly rated Il Palazzo deployed unimpressive ingredients, though the preparation and presentation were relatively distinguished. That doesn’t mean I don’t have recommendations: There’s a certain antique credibility to Luna (112 Mulberry Street, 212-226-8657), founded by Neapolitan immigrants in 1919 and run by Mamma Luna for the better part of the 20th century. The fare is worthwhile as a kind of elevated Chef Boyardee of overcooked pasta, lusty marinara, and meatballs as close to perfect as meatballs can get. But the best restaurant in Little Italy is not quite in Little Italy, and it’s not quite in Zagat, either. Forlini’s (93 Baxter Street, 212-349-6779) is the well-kept secret of court employees, and at lunchtime it’s filled with judges out of their robes looking liked plucked chickens, as lawyers feast on veal chops and jail guards twirl spaghetti.