Now that this year’s San Gennaro festival has stuffed its last cannoli, my neighborhood has returned to its relaxed self. While I’m all in favor of the old-country vibe surrounding most of Mulberry Street, my go-to spots around Little Italy and Nolita aren’t actually Italian (except for one!).
Here are my top five:
Despana’s Vinos y Mas
When this tiny Spanish food market recently decided to expand to a restaurant with communal tables, everyone came out a winner. Offering a full menu of bocadillos, flautas, salads, and soups, the preserved goods that the store is known for are showcased throughout these plates. A simple meal of thinly sliced Serrano ham on crisp ciabatta, a few spicy patatas, and a small dish of punchy Spanish olives make for a grazer’s dream. 410 Broome Street, 212-219-1555
Beautiful people deserve tacos, too. At least that what you’ll think at this taqueria and late-night lair on Kenmare. The excellent tacos, tortas, and char-grilled corn evoke sunburned, spring-break memories in TJ. Also worth trying: the fluke ceviche with marinated cucumbers and pickled carrots and the empanadas stuffed with duck confit in mole. While the crowd is generally high-heeled, everyone leaves with a few chile relleno grease stains. 114 Kenmare Street, 646-613-1333
The French can make anything look cool, which might be why this corner bistro — which isn’t reinventing anything other than its own block — is as enticing as a too-full glass of the house red and a dog-eared copy of The Sun Also Rises. Stick to the standards, like a hefty salade Nicoise or a pleasantly greasy Croque Monsieur, and you’ll be satisfied. And because this neighborhoody spot doesn’t draw the crowds of Balthazar, you’ll be free to linger all afternoon. 155 Grand Street, 212-274-8859
Who says that dim sum is only for breakfast? Well, a whole culture actually. But, no matter, Red Egg serves sharable Cantonese bites all day in curtained-off spaces, under moody red-tinted lighting. The dishes you usually refer to by number all make menu appearances (we’re looking at you General Tso), but the roasted pork buns and tangy shrimp rolls are also worth trying. Sure, it might not be the most traditional approach to dim sum, but dumplings after dark are a nice perk to living in New York. 202 Centre Street, 212-966-1123
This pedigreed pizza place (father and son owners also helm Staten Island favorite Joe & Pat’s) is Little Italy at its best. Fight your tablemates for the rich and crusty eggplant parmigiano or “Grandma’s Braciole,” a tender mass of braised beef in a balmy tomato-garlic sauce. At lunch, the restaurant serves pizza by the slice, so you can trade-off between bites of creamy vodka-sauce and the lighter arugula, tomato option. It’s not always clear whether this trendy spot is a kitschy homage to a red-sauce joint or the real thing. But once you’re biting into the caprese pie with homemade straciatella, tomatoes and pesto, you won’t care either way. 235 Mulberry Street, 212-965-0500