E. Rossi and Co.’s storefront in Little Italy, on the corner of Grand and Mulberry, appears to be a typical gift shop crammed with religious items, music, and kitchen utensils. (Otherwise known as the Italian essentials.) But the tourists who pass by – drunk on Campari and full of pasta – might want to give it an extra look.
It is actually the oldest Italian gift shop in Little Italy and perhaps in the United States.
“My grandfather Ernesto Rossi came here in 1900 and opened a store 10 years later,” Ernest “Ernie” Rossi, Ernesto’s grandson and store owner, told The Post. The store has been a cornerstone of society along with cannoli and espresso for more than a century and has hired a number of new immigrants to New York (including this author’s grandmother, Olga).
Rossi, 71, has worked in the store since he was a child. “My uncle Pat used to give me a dollar a week,” he said. “And for a dollar I would buy five slices of Sicilian pizza and a few cola.”
Originally a hub for the exploding immigrant community, which sold Italian-language newspapers, magazines and books, E. Rossi and Co. became. quickly known as a major importer of Italian music: first playing piano rolls and then records. “My grandfather used to go back to Naples every year to attend the Festival of Piedigrotta,” Rossi said of the now defunct music festival, which began in the 19th century.
His grandfather wanted to scout for both tunes and talent, which led to him launching his own publishing house. As a result, E. Rossi and Co. an American gatekeeper for music from the old country, including the Neapolitan genre dubbed Sceneggiata.
“It was a musical theater genre that focused on revenge plans,” said Dr. Reba A. Wissner, an assistant professor of musicology at Columbus State University and one of the few experts in the art form. “When immigrants came to the United States from Italy, the stories shifted to longing for home and adapting to a new country. Rossi’s shop sold a lot of sheet music from these plays. ”
Although the art form has long since fallen out of popularity, it is immortalized forever in “The Godfather: Part II” as a young Vito Corleone, played by Robert De Niro, captures a Sceneggiata performance. “My dad was actually very good friends with Francis Ford Coppola’s dad,” Rossi said of the film’s director.
While the crowded store still sells music in the form of CDs, it has since shifted its focus to items ranging from bean cards to Bialetti espresso jugs.
But the past year has put the store’s future in jeopardy.
After closing due to the state-mandated COVID-19 shutdown and reopening in late 2020, Rossi developed diverticulitis and was subsequently hospitalized.
“While I was in the hospital, my wife Margaret said, ‘Ernie, I want to keep the store open.’ I said to her, ‘No, leave it closed.’ She said, ‘No, you want to be closed for too long.’ “
The store remained open, but in March, Margaret and a close friend, Freddy, who helped her run things, became infected with the virus. They both died shortly after.
“We were married for 51 years,” Ernie said. A songwriter herself known by serenade clients wrote a ballad dedicated to Margaret called “The Other Side of Forever,” which singer Jenna Esposito recorded as a tribute.
Because of the hardships, Ernie came back with the rent. Last April, a GoFundMe was set up to keep the store afloat as he is in danger of closing forever. A lawsuit with his landlords is set for Nov. 30. “I have to say, they’ve been very patient so far and I’m sure we’ll be able to figure something out,” he said. “I hope so.”
“Ernie’s store is special because it’s a landmark in Little Italy,” Wissner said. “It is one of the few stores of its age that survives and that thrives on sales of Italian-American imports.”
For Rossi, the store gives him a reason to continue in the face of terrible losses.
“Sometimes people don’t come in to buy something, but rather to say hello and say, ‘I’m glad to see you’re still here,’ he said. “I think they probably feel that as long as I’m here, they still have these memories to return to.”