October is Italian American History and Heritage month, and it is impossible to deny the influence that Italian culture and immigration has had on our neighborhoods. This is especially true in the South Village, an area which in the early 1900s was a predominantly Italian neighborhood, and one near and dear to Village Preservation’s heart, as we led the successful campaign to secure landmark designation for the area over more than ten years.
Many Italian immigrants opened small businesses which brought slices of Italy and Italian culture to the United States. These businesses, and the streetscape they helped create, have since become defining characteristics of the South Village, and are some of the major draws that have attracted people to the area for generations. One of these is the Italian cafe, which brought new varieties of coffee and a relaxed social atmosphere to the bustling city. These cafes extended onto the sidewalks, bringing the vibrancy of the indoor cafe outside, and shaping the street life of the neighborhood.
Today, Caffe Reggio remains as an example of an original Italian Cafe in the South Village. Located at 119 MacDougal street, Caffe Reggio was originally opened by Italian immigrant Demenico Parisi in 1927, and has since become a household name. With the opening of Reggio, Parisi brought the first cappuccino to the United States, which was made using an Italian espresso machine from 1902.
Even as the population of the South Village began to change, the popularity of Caffe Reggio never dwindled. The Village newcomers of the beat generation of the late 1940s and 50s found a home at Caffe Reggio. Beat Writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were regular patrons. Today Reggio is still open, and nearing its 100th anniversary. It creates a space for people from all walks of life to enjoy a cappuccino and rejoice in the Italian history of Greenwich Village.
The South Village was once home to many more of these Italian Cafes, such as Caffe Dante located just a few doors down at 79-81 MacDougal street. Originally opened in 1915, Caffe Dante operated as a traditional Italian coffee house until a change in ownership in 2015. The new owners transformed it into a cocktail bar called “Dante”. Although the new owners have preserved the original signage and front, its time as a traditional Italian coffee shop is long gone. During its 100 year run as a cafe, it was a respite from modern Manhattan daily life. Many people were sad to learn about the cafe’s transformation, and the loss of its traditional Italian character.
Cafe Borgia, which was located at 185 Bleecker street, brought a similar piece of Italian culture to the neighborhood for over forty years. Cafe Borgia was opened in 1959 by children of Italian Immigrants. Although newer than some of its neighbors, the Italian influence was omnipresent through its fare and decor. Similar to Reggio, the cafe gained notoriety after becoming a major hangout for writers of the Beat generation.
Cafe Cino, which was located at 31 Cornelia Street, was yet another example. It was originally opened in 1958 by Joe Cino, the son of Italian immigrants. The cafe operated as an art space with music performances and gallery exhibitions. It is considered to be the birthplace of off-off Broadway performances. The influence of a traditional Italian coffee shop was made clear with coffee and Italian pastries, while also creating a space for the arts to thrive. While Cafe Cino closed its doors in 1968, its memory as an Italian style cafe and theater lives on.
The businesses and community that were brought to Greenwich Village by Italian Immigrants and their descendants were enjoyed by Village residents for decades. The Italian style coffee houses later became some of the main meeting places for students, poets and musicians of all generations, and others who would call the South Village home. Today Caffe Reggio’s unceasing popularity is a testament to the importance and beauty of the Italian Coffee shop and the vibrant streetscape it creates.
Village Preservation led a successful campaign to landmark these South Village buildings. Caffe Reggio and the buildings that once housed Caffe Dante, and Caffe Borgia are located in the South Village Historic district which was landmarked in 2013. 31 Cornelia street, where Caffe Cino was located, is part of the the Greenwich Village Historic District Extension II which was designated in 2010, and was designated an individual landmark in 2019.