Considering the strong espressos, handmade pastas, and welcoming nonnas, it’s no surprise that Italy is one of the most popular travel destinations in the world. Unfortunately, not everyone has the time, money, or capability to travel across the world to visit Italy itself—but that doesn’t mean we can’t grab a slice of the homeland right here in our own country.
The history of Little Italy neighborhoods—and, really, all ethnic enclaves across the country—can be traced back to mass immigration to the United States during the 1800s. Immigrants, including those from Italy, were able to counteract prejudices and homesickness by creating communities that mimicked their hometowns overseas.
Since most immigrants first landed on the East Coast, Little Italys are a given in cities like New York City, Philly, and Boston. But, just as immigrants spread across the country, so has the occurrence of these regional Italian neighborhoods. If you're craving a bit of Italian food, culture, language, and hospitality, head to one of the country’s best Little Italys.
Boston’s North End is considered the city’s Little Italy neighborhood, and offers a variety of traditional bakeries, restaurants, shops, and nightlife. This enclave is especially well known for its cafe scene, which includes old-school powerhouses like Caffe Vittoria and Caffe Paradiso. For a cannoli reminiscent of Sicily, head to Mike’s Pastry or Bova Bakery, while Massimo’s, Pizzeria Regina, and Pagluica’s are musts for dinner. This area of Boston is also home to walking tours and stradas including the Harborwalk and The Freedom Trail, as well as historic sites like Old North Church and the Paul Revere House.
This oceanside Southern California city may not be the most obvious location for a rich and thriving Italian culture, but its seaside Little Italy is one of the best in the country. The downtown neighborhood was established in the 1920s, and has served as a thriving and bustling district ever since. The main stretch is located on India Street, lined with a mix of traditional and modern restaurants, shops, and cafes. While old stalwarts like Mona Lisa Italian Foods hold their ground, newer eateries like Bencotto offer residents and visitors a touch of contemporary Italian cuisine.
Considering most Italian-American Immigrants came through Ellis Island, it’s no surprise that Manhattan’s Little Italy, adjacent to Nolita and SoHo, is one of the oldest—and best—in the U.S. This is perhaps the most ideal place in the country to celebrate the San Gennaro festival, which takes place in September, though this neighborhood touts itself as a year-round destination for Italian foods, drinks, and culture. Though the actual boundaries of this Little Italy have shrunk over the years due to encroaching gentrification, there’s still a stronghold of businesses hoping to keep the Italian spirit alive. Must-catch restaurants include brick-lined Da Nico, old-school Pellegrino’s, and classic pizzeria Rubirosa.
San Francisco’s Little Italy is located in the North Beach neighborhood, flagged by Coit Tower, Washington Square Park, and the City Lights Bookstore. Whether you’re enjoying the view from the Filbert Steps, picnicking in the park, or channeling your inner Kerouac at the Beat Museum, there’s plenty to do in North Beach in addition to the Italian-centric activities. But if you're feeling particularly Italian, can’t-beat cappuccinos and espressos can be found at Caffe Greco, pizzas at Capo’s, and family-style meals at Capp’s Corner.
St. Louis, Missouri
The Hill, St. Louis’ Little Italy, is known for being a tight-knit and ultra-traditional community. The Hill is one of the best places in the country to get authentic and innovative Italian cuisine; Mama’s On the Hill claims to have invented toasted ravioli. It’s said that Yogi Berra, one of The Hill’s own residents, is quoted to have said “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded” about Rigazzi’s, a popular pizza-and-beer joint. The Hill also has a bustling shopping presence, including Girasole Gifts & Imports, which sells authentic Italian products including leather and ceramics.
Considering Chicago’s penchant for pizza—albeit the city's custom variety—it makes sense that Chicago is home to one of the best Little Italys, often referred to as University Village. The University Village name refers to the University of Illinois at Chicago, but it’s clear that this neighborhood’s heart is not in its college—it’s in Italy. Landmarks like the Piazza DiMaggio, the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, and the Our Lady of Pompeii Church attract locals and visitors alike. For tourists, the area is packed with high-end hotel properties and restaurants, including Tuscany Taylor, Davanti Enoteca, and Francesca’s on Taylor.
The history behind the relationship between Italian-American immigrants and the city of Philadelphia begins long before the surge of immigration in the 1800s. During the 1700s, there were at least 100 Italians that either lived in or stopped into Philly, and in 1753 Ben Franklin offered a course in the language at Philadelphia College. In fact, local favorite, Ralph’s Italian Restaurant is known as “the oldest Italian restaurant in the US.” The owner of the restaurant immigrated to the U.S. from Italy in 1893, and the eatery opened in the early 1900s and has been serving some of the best Italian dishes in the US ever since. The South 9th Street “Curb Market,”more commonly known as the Italian Market, is a must-visit for foodies visiting Philly, and features many local shops and vendors that highlight Italian foods and ingredients.
Cleveland’s Little Italy is also its food and fine arts hub, showcasing a unique mix of traditional and modern influences. To experience the best of the area’s art scene, sign up for one of the frequent art walks around the neighborhood or check out one of the many galleries on Murray Hill Road and Mayfield Road. For dinner, head to acclaimed local eateries Michaelangelo’s, Trattoria on the Hill, or Maxi’s Ristorante—or, if you’re hoping to cook a meal for yourself, purchase a bottle from Little Italy Wines and ingredients from Spuzzillo’s Market.
Quaint Providence, Rhode Island may not be the first town that comes to mind when you think of Italian-American presence—but it should be. Federal Hill, the city’s Little Italy, is a plucked-from-Europe-style area that authentically captures the spirit of the homeland. Small shops like Antonelli Poultry, Carrara’s Shoes, and Fred-Rick Veal harken back to the specialization of Italian shopping and cooking. The burgeoning culinary scene in Providence is perhaps best highlighted at restaurants like Siena-Providence and Cassarino’s Restaurant, which showcase a blend of contemporary and traditional styles.