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Italian Neighborhood Guide to Upstate New York: Syracuse, Binghamton, Utica, Watertown, and Rochester

New York City may be home to the largest population of Italian Americans in the United States, but it’s not the only hub of Italian culture in the Empire State worth exploring.

The state’s history is rich with the stories of Italian immigrants who worked the railroads and mills in the late 19th century. However, the Italian way has not been lost to the past. All throughout upstate New York, there are vibrant, active Italian American communities. 

Artisanal markets, bakeries, traditional restaurants, and yearly festivals all contribute to a thriving, living legacy. Some venerated establishments – like Syracuse’s Columbus Baking Company and Utica’s O’Scugnizzo’s Pizzeria – are over 100 years old. Others, like Alteri’s Italian American Market in Watertown, are simply the newest incarnation of a multi-generational family legacy. Sharing food at these places is a way to take part in cherished Italian family traditions that have been carefully passed down.

Calo Alteri, the fifth-generation bread maker who owns and operates Alteri’s Italian American Market alongside his father, Mark, and brother, Nello, knows how special this legacy is. Whether he’s baking bread or preparing stuffed shells, he draws inspiration from those who came before him.

“My grandmother – if anyone knew her – she was the best cook around.” He’s referring to Ida Alteri, who owned and operated Alteri’s Bakery with her husband for 36 years. Looking back, Alteri sees what made her cooking so special. “It was just love.” 

This sense of love is a common theme among Italian American families who have made livelihoods out of feeding their upstate New York communities. It’s also what keeps patrons coming back year after year and day after day. 

From Watertown to Binghamton, we’re breaking down the best Italian spots that are worth the pilgrimage:

Syracuse 

History

Stepping out onto Salina street in Syracuse, one is stepping onto an Italian legacy that dates all the way back to the 1880s. After laboring on the West Shore Railroad, many Italians settled on the Northside of Syracuse, centering their homes and businesses around North Salina and Pearl Streets. Amazingly, some of the family businesses that defined this era in Syracuse's history still stand today. The iconic Columbus Baking Company opened its doors in 1895 and still serves the community daily. While this neighborhood has always been a “Little Italy” in spirit, it wasn’t until 2003 that it earned the title officially. 

Eat and Drink

There is no shortage of delicious restaurants in Syracuse’s Little Italy. However, one of its most beloved spots is Francesca’s Cucina. This year, it was voted Syracuse’s Hottest Destination by both locals and tourists. Of course, its presence dates back much further: for over 30 years, the family-owned restaurant has been a staple in Syracuse’s dining scenes, serving up some of the area’s best Italian food in a rustic setting. The menu hosts Italian American staples like chicken Francaise and Utica greens, as well as more traditional dishes like Uncle Paulie’s Bolognese and Old School Braciole. 

A five-minute drive from North Salina Street, Attilio’s is located at 770 James Street and is another local mainstay. While the restaurant has been on James Street since 2017, it was originally located in the Little Italy district. Attilio’s has a lively ambiance and friendly staff – a perfect combination for enjoying hearty Italian dishes like Attilio’s mushroom risotto or Sicilian Cavatelli and Broccoli. 

While Joey’s Italian Restaurant is outside of the North Side neighborhood, it’s one of the best Italian restaurants in all of Syracuse. Located at the Carrier Circle, Joey’s has been serving Syracuse since 1982. In that time, the restaurant has earned a steadfast following throughout upstate New York and beyond. Joey’s sauces can even be found in local grocery stores. 

Italian Markets

Columbus Baking Company commonly referred to as Columbus Bakery, is one of the most popular – and oldest – Italian markets in upstate New York. It’s been in business for well over 100 years, and generations of Italian Americans have been feeding their families with “Columbus Bread.”

For many out-of-towners, it’s near impossible to drive through Syracuse without stopping in for a loaf – or three. One of the bakery’s most enduring staples of its simple menu is the Meatball Sandwich in a Heel: for this massive sandwich, fresh meatballs, marinara, and mozzarella are generously stuffed into half a loaf of bread. It would be too big to finish if it wasn’t so good. 

For a more robust market selection, head to Lombardi's Fruits & Imports. The original Lombardi’s opened in 1930 in Calabria, Italy. The market was started by Elviro Lombardi, who had spent several years apprenticing in Naples. Eventually, Elviro and his wife, Rosina, moved to the United States with their children. Years later in 1970, their eldest sons opened Lombardi’s Fruits and Imports in North Syracuse. Specialty Italian foods and ingredients have been available in Syracuse ever since. 

The legacy 

Today, Syracuse’s “Little Italy '' is a truly multicultural neighborhood, welcoming in new immigrant communities. However, even as new traditions develop, reverence for the neighborhood’s first Italian stewards still stands.

Watertown

History

Like their Syracuse neighbors, the Italians that first settled in Watertown at the end of the 19th century were railroad workers who came to the area for jobs. Italians settled in the western part of the city, which was known as the Sandflats. While Watertown has never had a designated Little Italy, “The Flats” was the epicenter of Italian life in Watertown all throughout the 20th century. In 1939, the Italian American Civic Association was formed (and is still active on Bellew Ave to this day). The Flats was home to numerous Italian markets, bakeries, and restaurants, all helmed by local families who lived in the neighborhood in which they worked. Today, the Flats is mostly residential and many of the famous haunts – like Morgia’s Restaurant and Giovanni’s – are no longer operating. Still, Watertown has a thriving Italian American scene. 

Eat and Drink

Located in the Flats, Pete’s Trattoria Restaurant is a beloved destination for homemade pasta, pizza, fine wine, and regional dishes like stuffed half-hots and Utica greens. Owned and operated by chef Geoff Puccia, the dining room and bar are often filled with neighbors, friends, and regulars, which makes for a truly welcoming atmosphere. 

Meanwhile, Canteen 836, located on Coffeen Street, offers comforting Italian fare in a fast-casual setting. The eatery operates in what was once Sboro’s Restaurant and Chophouse – a long-time Flat’s favorite. However, it’s still all in the family: Canteen owner Michael Sboro continues his family’s legacy of providing deeply satisfying and comforting food. House-style chicken riggies and sandflats cavatappi are must-tries, and you’ll want a specialty pizza (or two, or three) to share while you’re there. 

On the other side of town at 820 Huntington Street is one of Watertown’s oldest – and perhaps its most beloved – restaurant, Art’s Jug. Opened in 1933, Art’s Jug has been owned and operated by the Sboro family for four generations. The family-friendly restaurant has an extensive menu, featuring Art’s signature dishes like homemade manicotti and eggplant parmesan. However, what gives Art’s its cult following is its pizza. While plenty of places claim to have a “secret family recipe,” Art’s Jug truly does. Their homemade dough and sauce are impossible to replicate, and the result is a unique style of pizza that you have to travel to Watertown in order to taste.

Italian Markets

Alteri’s Italian American Market is doing its part to revive the tradition of specialty markets in the Flats. The market opened in 2020, born out of what Calo Alteri calls “a necessity.” Alteri recalls how, in his father’s boyhood, there were Italian markets on every corner. That disappeared for a while, and now the Alteri family is bringing the tradition back. 

At the market, you can shop for imported Italian goods like high-end meats and cheeses. In addition to being the best destination for artisanal ingredients, the market is also the place to get Alteri’s bread – which, for local Italians, is nothing short of revered. Master baker Mark Alteri is a fourth-generation bread baker and has been instrumental in preserving the art form, opening this new establishment, and passing the craft down to his sons. 

Mark, Calo, and Nello aren’t the only Alteris feeding the Watertown community. Just in time for the holidays, Chiara Alteri is opening Alteri’s La Bella Dolce, an authentic gelateria that will be based out of Alteri’s market. Alteri was inspired to bring Italian Gelato to upstate New York after living in Italy for five years. “I had gelato every day,” she says. “It was always a social event where it was a way to go out and meet your friends. I'm trying to show everyone here that part of it.” To do this, Alteri returned to Italy to study the art of Gelato making. Now, she will share a piece of Italy with Watertown. 

Outside of the Flats over on 710 Holcomb street, Paula Feisthamel brings Italian home cooking to Watertown through Riccardo’s Market. Feisthamel’s recipes are inspired by Morolo, Italy where her family’s roots lie. Riccardo’s freezers are always stocked full of gnocchi, braciole, and veal cutlets, while the deli counter serves fresh favorites like lasagna, Italian green beans, artichoke salad, plus sauce and meatballs. Riccardo's is the go-to spot for picking up a prepared weeknight dinner, so it’s wise to call ahead and reserve your order. 

The legacy 

Today, Watertown’s tight-knit Italian community keeps the tradition alive through thriving family businesses. Recipes and restaurants alike are passed from parent to child. Now, the next generation puts their own mark on the legacy that started in the Flats but has blossomed beyond it. 

Utica 

History

While the city itself has a strong Italian identity, the East Side in particular is the epicenter of Italian life in Utica and is commonly referred to as Utica's “Little Italy.” From the 1880s to the 1920s, Utica saw a massive migration of Italian immigrants. Most Italians who settled in Utica made their homes on the East Side of the city and took jobs with the local textile mills, brickyards, and construction companies. However, Italian immigrants were very entrepreneurial, and soon the East Side was populated with Italian businesses. Italian life flourished; there was even an Italian-language newspaper in print. Utica also has a storied history in the underworld of organized crime. In the mid-20th century, the American Mafia’s presence in the city was strongly felt. Today, Utica still has a robust Italian American population. 

Eat and Drink

Founded in 1914 by Eugene Burlino, O’Scugnizzo’s Pizzeria is still family-run and is still the very best pizza in Utica. When O’Scugnizzo’s first opened, it only sold tomato pie. Today the menu includes countless pizza variations, plus antipasti and pasta dishes. You can even ship a bake-at-home O’Scugnizzo’s pizza anywhere in the United States!

Located at 787 Lansing street, Ventura’s is another long-standing Italian establishment. The restaurant opened in 1943, and in its time fed New York Yankee legends such as Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, and Phil Rizzuto. Ventura’s marinara sauce recipe has remained unchained for three generations, and is a must-try: you can even buy a jar to take home with you. Ventura’s is one of the best places in town to enjoy regional Italian American dishes like chicken riggies in Utica Greens (referred to Greens Ala Ventura on the menu), too. 

For authentic, family-style Italian, look no further than Trattoria Calabria. The BYOB restaurant is known for its long, multi-course meals and generous portions. It’s the perfect spot for a long, relaxing family dinner. Owner and chef Danny makes everyone who visits feel like part of his family. 

Italian Markets

There’s no shortage of impressive Italian markets in Utica. One of the best destinations for homemade sausage and bread is Roma Sausage and Deli. The market offers sweet, medium, hot, or Sicilian sausage in bulk or rope. If you’re cooking an Italian meal at home, this is the place to source your meat and other ingredients. 

Just down the road from Roma’s is Napoli's Italian Bakery & Deli. Stop in for a famous Napoli tomato pie – a family tradition that the Zenzillo family has been sharing with their customers for generations. While you’re there, pick up some sauce and meatballs for the freezer – and a loaf of bread, of course. 

Other grocers worth visiting are Maria’s Pasta Shop, Little Italy Imports, and Florentine Pastry Shop

The legacy 

Today, Italian Americans still make up a significant portion of the population in Utica. For many, family roots run deep. When you enjoy an Italian meal in Utica, you are sharing a piece of local history.

Rochester

Little Italy Rochester street map (Photo Credit:Littleitalyroc.com)

History

For over 150 years, the corridors of Lyle Avenue and Jay Street have been known as the “Little Italy'' of Rochester, New York. It all started in the late 19th century when Italian immigrants first settled on these historic streets, making homes here and opening businesses. Unfortunately, the neighborhood’s legacy has not been one of prosperity: Over time, the area became neglected and, eventually, steeped in crime and poverty. However, in recent years there has been a movement to restore Lyle Avenue and Jay Street. While it will take serious vision and resources, those close to the cause have enjoyed some wins: the neighborhood has been deemed a Historic District, received revitalization grants from the state, and in 2021 it gained recognition from the Italian Enclaves Historical Society, making it one of over 140 historical Italian neighborhoods in the United States. 

Eat and Drink

Today, the influence of Italian food culture can be felt beyond Lyle Avenue and Jay Street and all throughout the city of Rochester. 

Pane Vino On The River is one of Rochester’s premiere dining spots. Overlooking the Genesee River, the three-story eatery serves up traditional Italian dishes prepared with a modern twist. The chefs at Pane Vino understand the power of simple, fresh ingredients. In that spirit, they serve some of the finest steaks, chops, and seafood. Located in the heart of downtown Rochester, it’s steps away from local hotels, festivals, and entertainment. 

Family-owned and operated, The Pasta Villa opened its doors in 1992 and has been delighting customers with old-school Italian American fare ever since. As the name suggests, homemade pasta dishes are at the heart of the restaurant's menu. However, it also offers other mouth-watering entrees like Veal Saltimbocca, Chicken Cacciatore, and grilled Rack of Lamb. 

In Italian cuisine, tradition is everything. At Fiamma Cento, you can experience traditional Neapolitan pizza right in upstate New York: the restaurant is home to the first authentic  Neapolitan Wood burning pizza oven in Monroe county. While it’s hard to visit Fiamma without ordering a pizza, the restaurant also offers a full, southern-Italian-inspired menu featuring dishes from the Campania region of Italy. 

Italian Markets

Rochester may be known for its devotion to the Wegmans supermarket chain, but when it comes to Italian specialty foods, you don’t want to go to the superstore. Instead, head to Little Italy. 

Located at 1501 Lyell Ave, Olindo’s Cash and Carry specializes in imported Italian goods. Regular customers love Olindo’s for its old neighborhood charm. The market is run by its namesake, Olindo Di Francesco, and his wife, Filomena. Along with their son, Charlie, they foster a sense of community through their market, all the while delivering exceptional goods. 

The Legacy 

While the historic “Little Italy” continues to evolve and grow, the Italian spirit continues to thrive in Rochester. Like the Italian immigrants who helped shape the city in the 1900s, today’s residents continue to adapt and leave their mark on the city, knowing that coming together as a community is one of the most powerful things we can do.

Binghamton 

History

To explore the Italian legacy in Binghamton, New York, head over to the village of Endicott, nestled in the greater Binghamton metropolitan area. The area was first settled by Italians in 1913 when the Endicott-Johnson Corporation – for which many Italians worked – purchased residential properties. Until then, local landlords don't allow Itlains to rent. The Endicott Johnson Corporation removed these restrictions from their newly purchased buildings, and thus an Italian neighborhood emerged. Italians eventually started their businesses there, too. Some of them, including Oaks Inn, Consol’s Family Kitchen, and Battaglini Bakery still operate today.

Eat and Drink

The Oaks Inn, a classic Italian American "Old Neighborhood" restaurant. (Photo Credit: Littleitalyendicott.org)

At Oaks Inn, you can enjoy a classic Italian American feel in a true “Old Neighborhood” haunt. Everything is made fresh, and the atmosphere is casual and welcoming. As a result, the place tends to fill up pretty fast on any given night. 

Another old-school favorite, Consol’s Family Kitchen has been family owned and operated since 1946. It’s well-regarded as the best pizza in Endicott, but the restaurant’s homemade pastas are not to be missed, either. 

Both establishments are in the heart of Endoctt’s Little Italy, and so is Antonio’s Bar and Trattoria. Antonio’s offers a rotating wine menu and prepares meals with fresh ingredients, including its specials that often feature seasonal ingredients, like their Butternut Squash Risotto or Butternut Squash Flatbread. Antonio’s is not to be missed. 

Italian Markets

For four generations, Battaglini Bakery has been serving the Endicott community. Owners Joseph and Anothony Battaglini continue to make bread in the traditional way. Since 1911, Battaglini’s specialty has been stone hearth-style Italian bread. 

However, if it's a deli that you’re after, visit Jim Roma’s Bakery. The full-service deli serves up fresh subs, bread, pizza, soup, salads, pastas, and more. Stop in to try one of the bakery’s mouth-watering daily specials like Sausage Rolls or Italian Roast Chicken. 

The legacy 

The Endicott community is dedicated to keeping its heritage alive. While in Endicott, you can take a walking tour of Little Italy to absorb the area’s rich history. You can also taste the tradition for yourself when you dine at these classic Little Italy establishments. 

Natalli Marie Amato

Natalli Amato is a music and lifestyle journalist from Sackets Harbor, New York.  Her bylines include Rolling Stone, Vice, and The Boot. She is also the author of several collections of poetry. 

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