E. Rossi & Company has been open for more than 100 years
It is a quiet day in mid-February and a soft halo of light trickles out from a two-doored store and onto the idle sidewalk. The shop’s two large display windows exhibit dozens of statues of winged angels, pious saints, holy Virgin Marys and so very many infant and adult Jesuses. Deep inside this space, past the open, worn wooden doors and the off-white stucco ceilings whose elegant swirling designs recall a Renaissance-era Italian palazzo, sits a man in blue flannel and gray sweatpants. Perched on a wooden stool, backdropped by a wall of Italian folklore keychains, he strums his guitar with emotion.
This is Ernesto “Ernie” Rossi, the 72-year-old owner of E. Rossi & Company, an Italian novelty and souvenir shop located at 193 Grand Street in Manhattan’s Little Italy. Founded in 1910 by Mr. Rossi’s grandfather, Ernesto Rossi, a Neapolitan who immigrated to the city in 1900, it is the oldest Italian American souvenir shop in New York City.
The store, crammed with so many knick-knacks and trinkets and memorabilia, is in many ways a repository for the Italian American experience in New York City. Italian soccer jerseys, crucifixes, and historic maps to olive oil dispensers, cheese graters, and moka pots, hang from the wall, line shelves, and burst from revolving display cases. It is almost impossible to navigate the shop without brushing up against a display of Italian saints’ postcards or setting off an avalanche of nativity statues.
The shop, which has been run by several generations of the Rossi family, has survived two World Wars, the Great Depression, 9/11, and the city’s everchanging social fabric. But now, a familiar mix of COVID-related loss of business and astronomical rent has put the shop, Mr. Rossi’s family legacy, at grave risk.
“You have a lot of restaurants around here, but you don’t have any other places like this left,” says Mr. Rossi with a shrug. “You have a lot of souvenir shops, but those [places] are typical New York souvenirs.”
Mr. Rossi’s grandfather first opened the store in 1910 at 187 Grand Street where he sold newspapers, magazines, and books in Italian. In the 1920s, as more Italian immigrants flooded the cramped streets of Little Italy, he began publishing music mainly by Neapolitan musicians. Around 1935, the store was moved to the corner of 191 Grand Street where it was later expanded onto Mulberry Street. It moved again to its current location in 2005 when the original building was bought, and landlords raised the rent by over $20,000.
Born and raised on the island of Manhattan to Italia and Luigi “Louis” Rossi, Mr. Rossi grew up on the 4th floor of a building on Mulberry Street, quite literally around the corner from his family’s store. “When I looked out my window to the North on Mulberry, I could see the Empire State Building,” he says with a wistful smile. “And as a kid, I always felt as if that building was built there so I could see it.”
Mr. Rossi is a robust man with eyes the color of the Mediterranean on a stormy day. His hair is like freshly fallen snow, shot through with a few defiant strands of granite. Parted to the left, it is still thick and curls slightly at the ends when left long. His voice, flecked by a subtle, yet commanding Manhattan lilt, is strong and clear, especially when he sings. He always sits on a worn, wooden bar stool behind one of the counters in the shop, his cane (he’s got a bad knee) and at times his guitar, standing sentinel before him.
Little Italy is known for its restaurants, coffee shops, and winding streets that echo those of Italian cities such as Rome and Naples. It’s also known for its costs: minimum rent prices for a one bedroom are as high as $2,000. Not bad for a neighborhood that was formerly a slum.
Italians first began immigrating into the city in the 1870s. Immigrants were almost always from the poor, rural regions of Southern Italy that were rife with famine, disease and high mortality rates. As Italians moved into the city, they settled into the slums of the Lower East Side, which at the time constituted the southernmost part of Mulberry Street, and displaced its former inhabitants, the Irish. For decades, the Italians lived in squalor – large families were often packed into one bedroom apartments that tended to lack indoor toilet facilities.
Italian immigration into the city peaked around 1920, according to Dr. Joseph Scelsa, the president of the Italian American Museum. The museum, founded in 2005 and located on Mulberry Street, just down the street from Mr. Rossi’s shop, is the country’s first museum dedicated to the Italian American experience. (The Italian American Museum is temporarily undergoing renovations and will reopen in the Fall of 2022 to function as an anchor for the community.) Dr. Scelsa estimates that at that time, the neighborhood was home to around 500,000 to 700,000 Italians.“[New York City] was the first home, the first place Italians settled,” explains Dr. Scelsa. “It was the largest Italian colony outside of Italy..so it’s symbolic.”
Mr. Rossi spent his youth cleaning up in the shop after school and helping his mother set up a booth at the Feast of San Gennaro, a September celebration dedicated to the patron saint of Naples. There, they sold folklore trinkets like the Italian horn and the mano cornuto (horned hand), typical amulets worn in the south of Italy to protect against the evil eye.
Mr. Rossi joined the reserves after high school in 1968 to avoid getting drafted into the Vietnam War. In 1970, he got a job in a bank called Hanover Trust Company, where he ended up meeting the love of his life, Margaret. It was a cold day in February 1970 when he spotted a beautiful girl wearing a black mini skirt and blue top crocheting at a table in the building’s cafeteria. She had long hair and dark brown eyes that gleamed like polished stones. Mustering up his courage, Mr. Rossi asked if he could sit in the empty chair next to her. Once seated, he turned toward her and asked, ‘by the way, who are you knitting that for?’ and she responded very simply with ‘you.’ Two days later, they went on their first date. Less than a year later, in October of 1971, they were married and moved out to live in Brooklyn, where Mr. Rossi still lives. “What can I say, we fell in love right away,” says Mr. Rossi. “We even had the same birthday, July 12, just two years apart. She was very good to me.”
On that first afternoon in February that I visited him in his store, he sang me a song he wrote after Margaret, his wife of 51 years, passed away last April from COVID-19. Titled “The Other side of Forever,” the song is both an ode to the love they nurtured for five decades and a resounding declaration that their story is not yet over. (The song was recently recorded by Italian American singer Jenna Esposito and released on Spotify, where it has been downloaded thousands of times.)
Mr. Rossi officially began working in the store in 1973, and legally became a partner with his father Luigi (who passed away in 2006) in the early 1980s. That’s around the time he started noticing a major shift in the neighborhood. Rents, both residential and commercial, began rising, wiping out long-term businesses and forcing families to move to the suburbs. The increasing cost of living in the neighborhood was compounded by the deaths of many of Mr. Rossi’s childhood friends and family. In what felt like a short time, his home changed beyond the point of repair and became unrecognizable. “Now, there’s hardly anyone left from the old neighborhood,” he says with a shake of his head. “Every day I hear about someone passing away.”
Mr. Rossi is nostalgic at heart. When he speaks of the past, it is with the yearning of a jilted lover – his voice keens, and his deep-set eyes pinch at the corners. He is a sentimental man, one who feels great, consuming bursts of emotion mitigated only by the soothing balm of music and his sheer dedication to seeing his family legacy persevere.
“He's very caring. And he bends over backward to do his best to please the customers,” explains Susan Burns, who has been helping Mr. Rossi in the store for the past five years. “When a customer needs something and it's not in the store, he'll call the supplier on the phone and order it, especially for them.”
Little Italy will live on in spirit, but not so much in practice, notes Dr. Scelsa. While the Italian personality will remain in the essence of restaurants and coffee shops, the people who run these establishments will no longer be of Italian descent. The few intergenerational businesses that remain in the neighborhood, like Mr. Rossi's, are run by people of a certain age and are therefore untenable in the long term, he says.
“I think people still feel the neighborhood is Italian, but it’s not 100 percent,” says Dr. Scelsa, who is originally from the Bronx. “I think there’s a certain feeling that you get on those streets that reminds us of what the immigrants came to when they first came to America.”
At the end of 2020, Mr. Rossi discovered he had a hole in his colon that led to hospitalization and surgery. Too ill to work, his wife Margaret and their friend Freddie, who lived with the couple for close to 40 years, took over the store. In March 2021, both came down with the COVID-19 virus and passed away within a few days of each other in April. As hospitals did not allow visitations at the time due to the pandemic, Mr. Rossi and his wife were unable to see each other in person for three months. Sometimes Margaret would call him in the hospital and play one of the songs he had written for her called “Far l’amore con te” (making love with you) because she wanted to feel close to him. The two listened to the love letter together, imagining the time when they’d be able to hold each other again.
“A week before she passed, she called me and told me, ‘I have always loved you,’ and that’s when I knew,” he says. “I feel like she sacrificed herself to keep this place open. I miss my wife.”
Keeping his store afloat through financial woes, a global pandemic and insurmountable personal loss is an act of love for both his heritage and his neighborhood. His sense of duty to the shop’s survival is intrinsically representative of what the Italian immigrants experienced and overcame when they first came to New York City. “Rossi’s is more than a commercial establishment. It’s a club, it’s an active part of his life,” explains Dr. Scelsa. “So, when people go into that store, it really just breathes the immigrant experience. And Ernie being there himself, he’s a treasure.”
One miserably rainy afternoon in late April as I was visiting Mr. Rossi in his store, we were interrupted by an Italian tourist purchasing an American flag. The tourist, a young man originally from the island of Sardinia, happened to be a professional opera singer who asked if he could sing Mr. Rossi a song.
As he burst out into a rendition of Luciano Pavarotti’s “Nessun Dorma,” his voice resounding off the walls, I watched a soft wave of emotion roll over Mr. Rossi’s face. As the man’s face turned the color of a scorched rose from his vocal exertion, as his voice swelled with gravitas as he belted out the final, powerful “vinceró” of the aria, Mr. Rossi’s eyes leaked delicate tears. When the performance was over, the two men exchanged kisses before the opera singer joyfully walked out of the store, waving his new American flag. It is moments like these that affirm why Mr. Rossi continues with his shop. The familiarity and warmth that bloomed between the two men, the two strangers – one young and one old, one Italian and one of Italian descent – embodies how Mr. Rossi and his shop are beacons for both Italians and Italian Americans.
Going forward, Mr. Rossi plans to take on a partner to help preserve his family’s 112-year-old legacy. His partner will be focused on the marketing side of the business, such as ramping up advertisement, social media presence, and potentially trade marking items with the family name while Mr. Rossi will continue to be responsible for the day-to-day operations. After all, he’s still young at heart and his store is more than just a job, it’s a way of life; a legacy that thanks to him, has not disappeared. Yet.
“I’d like to see [the shop] continue for other generations to come to show the experience of the Italian immigrants in the United States. A lot of people tell me, ‘hey, just give it up. Take it easy. Enjoy life.’ But this is what I know. This is what I do.”
Asia London Palomba
Asia London Palomba is a trilingual freelance journalist from Rome, Italy, currently pursuing her master's in journalism at New York University (NYU). In the past, her work on culture, travel, and history has been published in The Boston Globe, Atlas Obscura, and The Christian Science Monitor. In her free time, Asia enjoys traveling home to Italy to spend time with family and friends, drinking Hugo Spritzes, and making her nonna's homemade cavatelli.