In pre-pandemic times, Ernesto Rossi used to play guitar for customers wandering through the eclectic goods on offer at his Little Italy gift shop — a maze of Bialetti coffee machines and traditional pasta-making utensils, tote bags featuring the map of Sicily, vintage postcards of Mott Street. Now, the streets of Little Italy are quiet, and he only plays recordings of his favorite serenade, “Far L’amore Con Te,” a song he composed, to the few visitors who enter the shop.
To some, the store, E. Rossi & Company on Grand Street, is just another quirky New York stopping point, but to longtime Little Italy residents who know the shop’s history in the music publishing scene and its enormous collection of music scores and piano rolls, it’s an institution. Dubbed the Oldest Italian-American Gift Shop in Little Italy, E. Rossi & Company has been in business for over 100 years. But now, facing high rent and slow customer traffic during the pandemic, it risks closing.
Many fans of the store have joined together to keep that from happening. Paul Costabile, an entertainment reporter and friend of Rossi’s, opened a GoFundMe page last July to help keep the shop afloat. “Ernie became kind of like my godfather, not in the Mafia sense, but in a magical sense,” said Costabile. “I really just got close with him and everybody who runs the shop, and I fell in love with it. It was like a piece of home, a piece of Italy,” said Costabile, whose grandfather was an Italian immigrant.
As of mid-March, the campaign had raised just over $11,000 from 323 donors, including members of the Italian-American community and former clients from across the United States and the world. The community’s affection for the shop is apparent in the donors’ comments on the GoFundMe page. “I love this place. Please hang in there, Mr. Rossi!” wrote one. “Ernie Rossi is a Little Italy gem,” said another. And from Michael Fiorito, who hosted Rossi on his Meatball and Spaghetti Artist podcast last summer: “E. Rossi & Company has one of the most significant Neapolitan music archives in the world. It must be saved and preserved.”
The shop they are trying to save was born in 1910 on the corner of Mulberry and Grand Streets as Rossi’s Libreria, a store selling newspapers, magazines and books. “My grandfather Ernesto Rossi came here from Napoli in 1900 with four dollars in his pocket,” said Rossi, 70, the third generation of the family to run the store.
Rossi’s grandfather opened his business with the help of a brother who had emigrated to New York in 1897 and established a barber shop at the intersection of Mott and Spring Streets. Not long after its launch, Rossi’s Libreria evolved into a Neapolitan music store, selling music sheets and piano rolls before getting into the music publishing business.
Through the years the shop started selling other products like cookware, traditional Italian items such as nativity scenes, decorations and “corni,” red horn charms that symbolize luck in Neapolitan tradition.
The soul of the shop however, is preserved in its connection to music. Music publishing in Naples had been in decline since the 1880s, and New York had become the center of Italian music publishing, said John T. La Barbera, composer and guitarist who has published two books on Italian folk music.
The music sold at Rossi’s fit into the tradition of the Canzone Napoletana and was often written by immigrants from Naples. The shop was at the forefront of the Italian and Italian-American music publishing effort and remained significant for years, said La Barbera.
During the shop’s golden age, from the 1960s to the early 1990s, singers like Connie Francis, Jimmy Roselli and Gilda Mignonette performed songs published by Rossi’s. Many had been written by Neapolitan songwriters living in New York City. “There was a famous song, written in 1927 I think, performed by Gilda Mignonette, called “A Cartulina ‘e Napule.” It was written here and my grandfather brought it back to Naples, where it became a big hit,” said Rossi.
In 2006, as the neighborhood was gentrifying, a real estate development firm bought the property and raised the rent from $4,000 to $25,000. A documentary, “Closing Time,” by Italian producer Veronica Diaferia, chronicles the move by Rossi and his wife Margaret to a spot next door at 193 Grand Street. “Rent here is about $10,500 a month, and with the real estate tax it goes up to about 12,000,” said Rossi. “So it’s still very expensive, and with the pandemic, there’s no business.”
Even before the pandemic, Rossi watched as Little Italy has been getting smaller — “disappearing,” “vanishing” and “shrinking,” he said, as Chinatown, SoHo and NoLita expand. Rossi’s used to be one of many Italian gift shops in the neighborhood. Now his is the last.
“It used to be a place where you connect with your past and your roots,” La Barbera said. “You think of your grandparents, they used to go down there, and it was part of a very vibrant scene. I think the loss of that would have a major impact. For the second and third generation of Italian immigrants that idea of having an actual place to go to where they can relive part of that memory would be missing.”
Should Rossi’s close, it would be just the latest in a series of neighborhood losses during the pandemic that included John Jovino Gun Shop, the oldest gun store in New York City, the death of neighborhood icon Moe Albanese, also known as “Moe the Butcher” and the cancelation of the 2020 Feast of San Gennaro, Little Italy’s signature event.
Even with these losses and the shrinking of the neighborhood, Joseph Scelsa, the founder and director of Little Italy’s Italian American Museum is hopeful the Italian connection will remain in the neighborhood. He pointed to longtime businesses like Di Palo’s Fine Foods, which has operated as an Italian grocery store since 1925, and Ferrara Bakery and Alleva Dairy, both established in 1892, and his own Italian American Museum.
“I think the area will always have an Italian feel to it regardless of whether Ernesto remains, which I hope he does,” said Scelsa.
For now, Rossi, who has no children to take over the business, is going nowhere. He refuses to close even though he’s had to tap his savings and retirement fund to stay open. He began helping out in the shop as a young child and has pretty much worked there his whole life. For him, it is home.