The Meaning of Mulberry


As an Italian-American raised in New York, I never ate in Little Italy—no one in her right mind would. Italian-American food, even more than Italian food, is only done right at home. Oddly, when I think of Little Italy, I am more likely to picture steamed crab with ginger and scallion than veal parmigiana—my family had a Sunday night tradition of dinner in Chinatown, and dessert and coffee afterwards at Caffe Roma in Little Italy.

Fittingly, I stumbled into goomba mayhem recently, while on my way to dinner in Chinatown. The San Gennaro Festival (which could sound like a wholesome religious event, if you didn’t know better) will be going on through the weekend. On the official website, Frank Macchiarola, President of Figli di San Gennaro, Inc. says, “It is a time for remembrance and reconciliation, and a time for celebration.” I happen to know that it is, in fact, a time for “I heart blowjobs” T-shirts and cannoli-eating contests. But since fate had led me there, I decided to check it out. Strolling down Mulberry Street, I felt claustrophobic at first, being harassed over loudspeakers by people running shooting games or blasting “Napolizm,” amazingly bad rap from Naples.

But somehow, without even realizing, I became part of it. The notion of “mob mentality”— a crowd can form its own mindset, apart from any individual member’s behavior—was addressed by the social psychologist Herbert Blumer in the thirties. Though probably not inspired by the San Genarro festival, his theory is the only reasonable explanation for what happened to me. Losing my own sense of perspective with alarming ease, I suddenly lusted after everything around me. The more I ate, the more I wanted to eat, partly out of desperation to find something satisfying, and partly out of a subconscious belief that I was having fun—we were having fun.

I learned a few useful lessons:

1 Sausages are often dense and overcooked, but it’s commonly overlooked in the heat of the moment.

2 Clams on the half shell, which may seem like sketchy street food, are the best things to eat (6 for $7), but ask for the small ones.

3 Zeppole (and funnel cake) are nostalgic pleasures (3 for $2), but it’s imperative to get them right out of the fat, preferably when it has been changed recently. Keep the bag shut for a minute, and the heat will turn the sugar into a glaze.

4 The invention of the fried Oreo falls under the category of things that would have existed earlier if they were a good idea. This was a fatal last indulgence that I regretted even as I shoved them in my face. Encased in a thick batter, Oreo cookies are lowered into a deep fryer. Inside the golden brown shell, they steam into Oreo mush. And finally, a lesson I already knew:

5 For dinner, stick with Chinatown.