Presti's pastries and Corbo's cannolis get all the accolades, but Holy Rosary has been the heart of Little Italy since the cornerstone of the original church was laid on Aug. 14, 1892.
It was built out of necessity. The immigrants who lived near the intersection of Murray Hill and Mayfield roads wanted a place of worship closer to their homes and raised $2,000 in the span of a month to help finance it.
What they started blossomed into a thriving ethnic enclave as the 20th century took hold. A new church was dedicated in 1909, with restaurants and bakeries popping up later. And then, somewhere along the way, it all became wonderfully frozen in time, even as modern shops, galleries and restaurants took their places alongside time-tested ones.
To this day, holiday masses are partially conducted in Italian, and it's not unusual to see an elderly man fall to his knees in pure reverence as a holy day procession led by the church's pastor winds through the neighborhood. This is the living, breathing old country dropped in the middle of the new one.
Linger at the Alta House's annual bocce tournament, and odds are good an old man with an Italian accent will flirt with you, or your daughter, or your mother. Stroll down to Guarino's, and you'll find an antique parlor and dining room wrapped in a warm, early-20th-century embrace, and an equally comforting order of spaghetti and meatballs.
Of course, you can visit Little Italy any time, but if you want to experience the tastes, religious tradition and sheer love for life that is the Italian way, head to the Feast of the Assumption this month, which runs Aug. 12-15. The celebration, which in the Catholic faith celebrates Mary's entrance into heaven, is a roiling mass of families, old-timers and teens, a place where food lovers stuff themselves like ravioli, locals throw parties and kids get another chance to stare up at fireworks bursting across the summer night sky.
But the religious festival has not forgotten its reason for being. As evening falls on the celebration's last day, a group of men somberly lift a statue of the blessed mother. Some barefoot, some sheltering their candles against the breeze, they begin the slow journey up Mayfield Road in a procession that seems transported from another time.
The food stands, the music, it all drops away. Thousands of people watch as a glimpse of the Old World breaks through again, as it always has, as it will next year and the year after; just another moment when the true heart of Little Italy opens itself for the rest of the city to see.