E. Rossi and Co.’s Little Italy storefront, on the corner of Grand and Mulberry, appears to be just a typical gift shop, crammed with religious articles, music and kitchen equipment. (Otherwise known as the Italian essentials.) But the tourists who amble by — tipsy on Campari and full from pasta — might want to give it a second look.
It’s 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 up for business 10 years later,” Ernest “Ernie” Rossi, Ernesto’s grandson and the shop’s owner, told The Post. The shop has been a cornerstone in the community, alongside the cannoli and espresso, for well over a century, employing a number of new immigrants to New York (including this writer’s grandmother, Olga).
Rossi, 71, has been working at the shop since he was a kid. “My uncle Pat used to give me a dollar a week,” he said. “And for a dollar I’d buy five slices of Sicilian pizza and a couple of Cokes.”
Originally a hub for the exploding immigrant community, which sold Italian-language newspapers, magazines and books, E. Rossi and Co. soon became known as a chief importer of Italian music: first player piano rolls and then records. “My grandfather used to go back to Naples every year to participate in the Festival of Piedigrotta,” Rossi said of the now-defunct music festival which began in the 1800s.
His grandfather would scout both tunes and talent, leading him to launch his own publishing company. As a result, E. Rossi and Co. became an American gatekeeper for music from the old country, including the Neapolitan genre dubbed the Sceneggiata.
“It was a musical theater genre that focused on revenge plots,” said Dr. Reba A. Wissner, an assistant professor of Musicology at Columbus State University and one of the few experts on the artform. “When immigrants came to the United States from Italy, the stories shifted to longing for home and adjusting to a new land. Rossi’s shop sold a lot of sheet music from these plays.”
While the artform has long fallen out of popularity, it’s forever immortalized in “The Godfather: Part II” when a young Vito Corleone, played by Robert De Niro. “My father was actually very good friends with Francis Ford Coppola’s father,” Rossi said of the film’s director.
While the overflowing store still sells music in the form of CDs, it’s since shifted focus to items ranging from prayer cards to Bialetti espresso pots.
But the last year has put the shop’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’m going to keep the store open.’ I told her, ‘No, leave it closed.’ She said, ‘No, you’re gonna be closed for too long.’”
The shop stayed open, but in March Margaret and a close friend, Freddy, who helped her run things, were infected with the virus. They both passed away a short time later.
“We were married 51 years,” said Ernie. A songwriter himself known to serenade customers, he wrote a ballad dedicated to Margaret dubbedthat the singer Jenna Esposito recorded in tribute.
Due to the hardship, Ernie found himself behind on rent. Last April, awas set up to keep the store afloat as he finds himself in danger of closing for good. A court date with his landlords is set for Nov. 30. “I have to say it, they’ve been very patient so far and I’m sure we’ll be able to work something out,” he said. “I hope so.”
“Ernie’s shop is special because it is a landmark in Little Italy,” said Wissner. “It’s one of the few shops of its age to survive and which thrives on sales of Italian American imports.”
For Rossi, the store gives him a reason to carry on in the face of terrible loss.
“Sometimes people don’t come in to buy anything, but rather to say hello and say, ‘I’m happy to see you’re still here,’ ” he said. “I guess they probably feel that as long as I’m here, they still have these memories to come back to.”
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