Melodies Echo in Little Italy

The New York Sun: On the Town
November 22, 2004

On the corner of Mulberry and Grand streets a doorway, flanked by American and Italian flags, opens into the past of Little Italy. Once inside, you're immediately confronted by a table of imported Italian ceramic plates and dishes; a handwritten sign implores you not to touch the pottery. Overstuffed cardboard boxes seem to erupt from the floor. On the walls are religious icons and kitschy bumper stickers next to cooking aprons with "Kiss Me, I'm Italian" emblazoned on them.

Toward the back of the store are jerseys from various Italian soccer teams. There's a barely discernible counter along one side of the store, and in the front corner, an older man in a gray-and-white flannel shirt clutches onto his two canes, asleep in a folding chair.

But E. Rossi & Co. is more than a tourist gift shop of T-shirts and espresso cups. And Luigi Rossi is not just another importer of tchotchkes. In the years before World War II, 93-year-old Mr. Rossi was a top publisher of sheet music for Neapolitan and Neapolitan-style songs. Mr. Rossi and his store played a crucial role in the creation of what we think of as Italian-American culture.

Now, the last of the Italian music and gift stores in Little Italy, Rossi & Co. is expected to close at the end of the year, and the new building owners plan to raise the rent so high that only an establishment with heavy turnover, such as a restaurant or cafe, will be able to corner the block.

When Rossi & Co. first opened in 1905 it was one of what were several music stores that imported music from Naples, both in the form of sheet music and records. But more significantly, these stores published music written by Italian Americans, which was then sent back to Naples, making them classics in the homeland and throughout the world wherever Italians had emigrated.

Mr. Rossi speaks in a blend of Italian and English. His father Ernesto emigrated from Naples at the turn of the 19th century and had a partnership with an Italian music publisher in that southern Italian city. Now, Luigi's son, Ernie (named after Ernesto) runs the counter and takes care of his father.

At a time when many Americans had pianos at home - and Italians often had mandolins and accordions as well - sheet music was in high demand. On 28th Street, publishers row was a mecca for all kinds of popular songs.

"We had a piano player on a pushcart outside to advertise the song," Mr. Rossi says. "And we would sell the music for 10 cents each. People would come in from all over New York and Connecticut, and as far as Chicago and San Francisco. We would sell thousands."

Luigi Rossi digs into a box - one of several well-guarded at his feet - and pulls out the music score for "Senza Mamma e Nnammurata!" ("Without a mother and lover") by Luigi Donadio, which was a favorite with Italian audiences years ago. He also published "Comm'e' bella 'a Stagione" by G. Pisano, which was later sung by Connie Francis.

Other music publishers got into the action as well. The similarly titled "Senza Mamma" was written by Francesco Pennino, the maternal grandfather of Francis Ford Coppola. The music was originally published by Antonio Grauso, who was also a mandolin maker. Mr. Rossi bought over the store and the music in the 1930s. The song was performed in "The Godfather II" (the theater scene with a young Vito Corleone played by Robert DeNiro).

Published within blocks of Rossi Music was "Core'ngrato" (Ungrateful Heart),which continues to be a favorite with such opera tenors as Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras.

Mr. Rossi's face lights up, however, when he mentions the song "Cartulina e Napule," which he explains was sung by a then-famous singer, Gilda Mignonette, who made it big in Italy during the 1920s and launched a career in America, performing at the Irving Place Theatre as well as at theaters throughout New York's many Little Italies.

"She was beautiful," Mr. Rossi says. "She let me carry her valise. I used to carry it everywhere."

Ernie Rossi looks at his father, then looks out the window. He's frustrated, knowing that Little Italy is evolving into something else. Is he threatened by the encroaching Chinatown?

"No, not at all," Ernie says, shrugging off the question. "Are you kidding? I grew up here, went to school here - it was Italian and Chinese even then. I remember all the street vendors selling vegetables and seafood. They were all Italian, now the vendors set up on the same spots on the same street. The only difference is that they're Chinese. It's really like nothing's changed."

Ernie pauses and looks at his father, who's digging through one of the boxes at his feet searching for yet another piece of sheet music. "It's not the Chinese; it's SoHo moving south. It's the developers who are running us out."

"Even if I could just keep the storefront the way it is, maybe as a kind of museum, it would make my father happy. That's all I want."

Forlani Italian Imports on Mulberry and Hester and Zito's Bakery on Bleecker have also recently pulled down their gates. And with them will go Rossi's library of music and records. To many people, those songs, given a New York accent, are Italian-American culture, and with the store's passing a whole tradition, in which ordinary people made music around the piano or accordion, will be gone for good.