Big business in Little Italy
Adeline Lepore-Sessa sat behind a paper-covered desk on the third floor of Ferrara, the pasticceria and espresso bar her family has owned for 118 years.
As she chatted about the history of her beloved family business, her phone rang and she signed off on her employees’ paperwork.
“The job is the job,” she said in her thick Brooklyn accent, referencing the lack of glamor involved in owning a business.
Despite a changing neighborhood and what some see as a growing lack of faith in the authenticity of Little Italy, Ferrara is still thriving in its role as a long-lasting, family-owned business.
Lepore-Sessa’s great-uncle and great-grandfather opened Ferrara in 1892 on the corner of Grand and Mulberry Streets. At that time, New York was inundated with Italian immigrants coming to the United States to find work and fulfill their American dreams.
After she started a family of her own, Lepore-Sessa, 46, came back to work permanently for the company 19 years ago.
“You know, it’s an ego thing. At first you want to try to make it on your own, but then you realize you want to work with the family,” she said.
Lepore-Sessa’s great-uncle Antonio Ferrara opened the café so Italians could have a place to get authentic Italian espresso. Ferrara officially became known as America’s first espresso bar, a slogan the company still uses today.
“We’ve been incorporated longer than New York,” Lepore-Sessa said.
Lepore-Sessa, a self-proclaimed daddy’s girl, can’t remember a time when she wasn’t coming into the shop with her father.
Her grandparents lived in Little Italy, but Lepore-Sessa and her three siblings grew up in the Dyker Heights and Bay Ridge areas of Brooklyn. Still, her constant visits to Ferrara made it feel like a second home — and a job.
“Well, I mean, it depends on what you mean by work,” she said with a laugh. “I would consider it work long before my father did. I was behind the counter from 8 years old.”
Just as Lepore-Sessa did in high school and college, many of Ferrara’s employees’ children work there in the summers, starting out serving gelato and moving up to serving pastries and working the cash register.
“We really are all like family around here,” said Enza Gambino, 39, a manager who has worked at Ferrara for 10 years.
During the peak of the recession in 2008, Lepore-Sessa said it was that sense of family that determined how they ran their business.
“You know, when times are tough, people have to decide — it’s either dinner or dessert. And, I mean, you have to eat,” she said of the change in business. “But we made it a point to not fire anyone. This is our family here.”
Lepore-Sessa also attributes a familial devotion to the business and its employees as the reason Ferrara has been able to thrive in a changing Little Italy.
Modern-day Little Italy is not what it once was. Now the community spans east to west from Elizabeth Street to Baxter Street, and north to south between Spring and Canal Streets, with the main action happening on Mulberry Street.
Even though the neighborhood has become much smaller, several businesses remained.
“When I was a kid, Little Italy was blocks long and blocks wide. It was a big neighborhood, and it was all Italian,” Lepore-Sessa said. “Tenants, business owners — everyone spoke Italian.”
Lepore-Sessa blames the expansion of SoHo and Chinatown for the shrinking of Little Italy.
“You have a younger, yuppier crowd moving in with the boutiques in SoHo, and Chinatown coming up from the south,” she said.
But Joseph V. Scelsa, president and founder of the Italian American Museum, says the reason SoHo and Chinatown were able to expand was because Italian-Americans wanted to leave.
“They moved out to the suburbs; it’s the American dream,” Scelsa said. “At the time, Little Italy was considered a ghetto. It’s not anymore, but then it was, and they wanted to leave. It was a goal.”
The majority of Italian-Americans started leaving Little Italy in the 1960s and 70s, but it wouldn’t have been noticeable until at least the 1980s, according to Scelsa.
“Now it’s not a neighborhood anymore. Some people call it a theme park,” Scelsa said. “There are probably less than 200 Italians living in Little Italy right now, and they are all in their 60s, 70s, 80s. In about 10 years there won’t be any Italians left living in Little Italy.”
For Lepore-Sessa, however, this doesn’t seem like the end of an era. Her café is surrounded by other authentic Italian, family-owned businesses. Across the street is Alleva, the first cheese shop in America, and right next door is E. Rossi & Co., a souvenir shop. Both establishments are more than 100 years old.
Despite an overwhelming number of tourists who pass through Ferrara on a daily basis, Gambino says the store still has a group of regulars — mostly people who work in Little Italy rather than live there.
Like many Italian-Americans, Lepore-Sessa moved away from the city to Manalapan, N.J.
“Me and my husband, we wanted our kids to have that suburban lifestyle,” she said.
Still, in her eyes, what remains of Little Italy is Italian tradition. She notes that all the business owners are still Italian-American and she doesn’t think that will change, especially at Ferrara.
Her son works at a desk just a few feet away from her own and will be the fifth generation to someday own and operate the family business.
“We’re Italian — it’s all about family for us,” she said.