Over the years Little Italy has shrunk down to basically three blocks of one street- Mulberry St. Most everything there is for the tourists, with some exceptions, like the Italian food stores (meats, cheeses, etc).
This is not a tourist trap in the sense of 'don't go there'. Rather, don't think you have to go there to get excellent Italian food- it's available all over NYC. And in Little Italy food tends to be more expensive than normal.
It is still fun to go and walk around and possibly have dinner, people watch, etc, especially when Mulberry St. is closed to vehicular traffic. And of course, during the San Genaro festival held in September.
Little Italy is nothing like what it used to be. Unfortunately it has been reduced to about 2 blocks and it's lined with mediocre Italian restaurants and souvenier shops -- all selling the same stuff.
The Sorrento and San Gennarro festivals are insanely crowded and the streets are lined with vendors selling zeppoles, sausage & peppers and other street-fair food.
Unique Suggestions: Check out Chinatown, which surrounds Little Italy. You can get authentic Chinese food, shop in asian markets and buy great gifts and souveniers. Chinatown is extremely affordable.
It's a section of downtown that's been disappearing for years under the encroachment of Chinatown.
The restaurants are generally ripoffs, expensive and not authentic. I don't think there are any Italians there.
Another place tourists always want to visit.
Unique Suggestions: Walk two blocks to Chinatown.
Fun Alternatives: Find an Italian restaurant in another part of town--check out Zagat or Michelin for an expensive one or go local.
Queens and Brooklyn are good places to look, pizzerias with heros (subs) are great bets but avoid anything with
the name "Rays".
I find it quite dissapointing to try and enjoy yourself on a terrasse while all those little waiters are calling out to the tourists in order to have them come to the restaurant. Its very low class and doesn't usually encourage people to want to sit outside. Its too bad because the way the area is set up, it could be a much better experience.
And this is a note to the little lady selling firecrackers to all the kids, please change your location, I and many others could not stand hearing your demonstrations every two seconds while trying to enjoy our conversations and meals.
Located in the heart of Little Italy, Ferrara sells delicious Pasticceria.
Unique Suggestions: Weekends are busy in Little Italy, so Ferrara is often packed (specially during summer and San Genari Festival -January). Have a cappuccino or a gelato and keep walking towards Chinatown.
Fun Alternatives: If Ferrara is packed, across the street there are several shops selling italian delights. Mozzarella tastes good, however it tends to be super expensive. There are also fresh pasta shops, if you happen to enjoy cooking get some spinah or ricotta ravioli.
I like little Italy, but you get this feeling that because you're not Italian, (I am, but I don't look it) and you're not from around there, that some places will take advantage. Just be careful and aware. Little Italy is a nice place to visit. Check out my local customs tip.
Mulberry Street, and all of Little Italy on the weekends is a really fun tourist and local trap. Places like La Mela, the cafes, walking in the streets, buying silly toys and obnoxious t-shirts...it's all part of it. I like to sit at an outdoor restaurant with a carafe of the house red or white and watch the people go by. You learn a lot about human nature!
Little Italy - *Don't* go for an Italian meal in Little Italy, it's a waste of time. It's overpriced and there are better places elsewhere. *Do* eat Chinese in China Town then have coffee and a desert in Little Italy (Tiramisu... mmmmmm).