Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Then and Now: Ferrara Bakery on Grand Street, Manhattan

Then and Now: Ferrara Bakery on Grand Street, Manhattan

Ferrara Bakery Little Italy
Ferrara Bakery on Grand Street in Manhattan during the 1970s.

It is common to think of New York City as a place where things are transient. People come and go, businesses come and go, buildings come and go. However, there is a lot more permanence to the Big Apple than perhaps some folks realize. This isn't due strictly to preservation laws, either, though they certainly contribute. Instead, there is an institutional orderliness in Manhattan which maintains places that serve a need. A business doesn't have to be particularly unique - it may just be another local diner or steakhouse or deli when it opens. However, some of them have that special ingredient that stands the test of time. This isn't a judgment call or a review or anything like that, it is simply fact: some joints last seemingly forever while most are gone within a few years. One of the lasting places is the Ferrara Bakery at 195 Grand Street between Mulberry & Mott Streets.

I came across the above old photo of the Ferrara Bakery from the 1970s and became curious about what the site looks like today. So, I went on Google Street View and did a comparison of Ferrara Bakery between the 1970s and the 2010s. The resulting recent photo is below.

Ferrara Bakery Little Italy
In some ways, the Ferrara sign is more iconic than the Ferrara Bakery itself. But you can't have one without the other - they're a package deal. "Leave the gun and take the cannoli" - you know what film that's from, right?

A little research soon showed me that Ferrara Bakery was established in 1892. That doesn't make it the oldest local business in Manhattan by far, as there are restaurants such as The Old Homestead Steakhouse and Kenn's Steakhouse that originated in the mid-1880s that I can think off the top of my head that are older (and I would place good odds on some other businesses being older than them, too). The old joints all play up their venerable status one way or another - if they can't claim to be the "oldest," then they are the "best known." Nothing wrong with that - as the Jack Nicholson character said in "Terms of Endearment," we all use what we can.

Ferrara's claim to fame, aside from being around since before anyone alive today was born, is that it remains in the same family after five generations. It claims to be the first Pasteria and Espresso bar in "America." I'm not even sure what a Pasteria is - I'm sure it sells pasta, but only pasta? - but I'll believe them. Who's going to check? In any event, they've been doing something right, that's for sure.

Antonio Ferrara and Enrico Scoppa opened Café A. Ferrara in 1892. That section of Grand Street is in the heart of Little Italy. So, location, location, location being the first rule of real estate, placing your Italian bakery right in the heart of what has become a venerable institution within New York City devoted to your restaurant's tradition was either serendipitous or extremely shrewd planning. Ferrara's now is surrounded by other Italian bakeries and similar joints, of course, but there's only one Ferrara Bakery. The area gets a lot of foot traffic from tourists and locals alike, and that's exactly what a bakery needs to survive. People who want to see Little Italy because everyone knows about Little Italy are going to stroll by, see something nice in Ferrara's window, and stop in Why not? It's an authentic piece of Little Italy and the immigrant experience.

A comparison of the 1970s photo with the more recent one shows that little has changed in 40+ years. The Ferrara sign appears to be the same, as does its building - although the facade has been drastically updated. Call me a traditionalist, but I preferred the original facade. It's probably a lot nicer inside now, though.

Ferrara Bakery Little Italy
Stepping back a bit, this photo shows Ferrara Bakery in perspective. I still don't like that new facade. Looks like they change the bushes out front with some regularity.

The other buildings on the block also are the same. Getting anything changed on that street probably requires multiple approves from people who have no interest in seeing a historic area change, so that is not too surprising. Ferrara's must have had some pull to get their renovation permits approved.

Overall, the area looks a bit classier than it did in the 1970s. Gone are the low-rent sandwich shops and so forth. Now there are perfectly manicured potted plants out front and everything looks nice and tidy. The fire escapes are still there to give the area that authentic look of the Lower East Side. There has been some change, but it has been subtle and tasteful - just like Ferrara's mini cannoli.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this entry in my "the more things change the more they stay the same" series. Check out my other offerings, I love looking at how neighborhoods change - and don't change - over time.

Ferrara Bakery Little Italy
Ferrara Bakery on Grand Street in the 2010s (Google Street View).

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