Pop Culture
Feb 07, 2023, 06:29AM

An Italian Affair

Lollobrigida, Sinatra and New York’s Little Italy.

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Beautiful Gina Lollobrigida (1927-2023), who was 95 years old, died last month. In the 1950s, she achieved stardom on a global scale. When Fred Flintstone sang “Oh Lollobrigida, your food I diggida’ in my head,” in the 1960s, the kids were thrilled.

Bedrock loved Gina. There was even a cartoon character named Gina Loadabricks that appeared in one modern Stone Age episode. Gina went to Bedrock High with Fred before the bright lights of Hollyrock called. Back then, it was easy to learn history from watching television cartoon shows, and Gina Lollobrigida went on to do bigger things.

I wasn’t fully aware of the Lollobrigida mystique until later in life after watching the captivating thriller Woman of Straw. In the 1964 film, Lollobrigida is cast opposite Sean Connery in a rare “suave evil-bastard” role. Once known as “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World” she was a boundary-pushing actress, photojournalist, and politician who made significant contributions to Italian cinema history.

In 1959, Lollobrigida shared the screen bill with a famous Italian-American. The brash John Sturges war melodrama Never So Few included Frank Sinatra (1915-1998.)  Captain Tom Reynolds ran the show and said to Carla, “I kissed you lady, and you kissed me back. I got the message.” Off screen, Lollobrigida said she found Sinatra to be “really touchy.”

In addition to being “Frankieboy” the original heartthrob teenage idol, easy-listening raconteur Sinatra is revered as a lifetime god among many New Yorkers. The Rat Pack entertainer and movie star was a fan of crossword puzzles and even paid for actor Bela Lugosi's funeral. As for acting, he had the chops delivering 58 films with many excellent performances: From Here to EternityThe Manchurian Candidate and The Man with the Golden Arm. And there was The Voice.

Some say the closing of the curtain for Sinatra began in1994 during a concert in Richmond VA. While Frank Jr. was conducting the orchestra, Frank Sr. fell off his stool singing “My Way” and hit his head on a speaker. Sinatra had a lot of hits.

Mayor Ed Koch made “New York, New York” the City’s official anthem in February 1985. Liza Minnelli debuted the song from the same-titled 1977 Martin Scorsese movie. Every New Year’s Eve, Swoonatra begins disseminating the news right after midnight. When patrons hear the well-known Tony Rome battle cry, especially at bars and pizzerias: they become agitated, shrieking and fist pumping as the song starts. Which prompts the question: Do we need to be reminded of our surroundings so frequently?

There are other songs that perfectly define the silky Sinatra sound, for example “Summer Wind.” The theme from The Pope of Greenwich Village horns fade in. The camera rises and focuses on Spring St. below. Frank’s baritone croon sets the mood as director Stuart Rosenberg’s classic film begins.

The Little Italy filming location is still there. Imagine, it’s possible to picture Charlie and Paulie, two dreamers seeking questionable good fortune in life, working the Mulberry and Spring streets of the past. Arguably, one of Mickey Rourke’s and Eric Roberts’ finest performances. Across the street from the Spring Lounge, the north side of 75 Kenmare, a new structure with interiors designed by rocker Lennie Kravitz, faces a refurbished playground. Fading charm becomes brand new again. The City should put up a plaque.

The San Gennaro “Feast” is held here every year in September. Go, especially if you think the kids will appreciate receiving cheap, plush toy prizes. The event is a down-and-dirty, fabricated street fair based on Neapolitan Italian culture.

Little Italy is a gauntlet crammed with locals and visitors from around the world, with pretty much everything you can imagine. You “got your” more than one Dunk the Clown, and tons of sweaty t-shirt Joey and Tony guys from New Rochelle slinging sloppy, sausage sandwiches stuffed with onions and peppers. The event’s loud, crowded and pungent. People love it. Break out the Brioschi.

Director Scorsese often pays tribute to his former neighborhood. Once inhabited by tough guys, Little Italy served as a catalyst in many of his movies. Scorsese’s a master at translating the streets ruled by DeNiro, Keitel, Pesci, and Liotta bringing their stories to life.

In the early-1900s, wide-eyed Italians headed to the US on freight ships. Ready for arrival on Ellis Island, they were looking for a better life, and what happened? The immigrants made their way to their way to core neighborhoods where the Black Hand extortion racket terrified them. Many sought livelihoods in the new homeland using their expertise as stone masons, carpenters, barbers, butchers, and tailors. Safe from corruption? The stigma of an Old-World criminal underworld had quietly followed.

Decades later in 1972 at Umberto’s Clam House, 129 Mulberry St.; mobster Crazy Joe Gallo was shot and killed sitting in the back corner. Even into the 1990s, the Ravenite Social Club at 247 Mulberry St. served as a former mob headquarters. It was a common occurrence seeing four bodyguards accompanying John Gotti, front and back, as he crossed the streets. Today the area is a shopping destination for high-end fashion sunglasses.

Nearby, there’s a well-known saying attributed to Dean Martin on a poster behind the bar in Milano’s on Houston St. that reads “It’s Sinatra’s World, We Just Live in It.” Its frankness says a lot about the neighborhood.


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