Caffe Palermo: Expanding And Keeping Little Italy Vibrant

Food & Drink

A February 2018 feature story in the New York Times described Little Italy as having “shrunk to a name on a street map and at most-a three-block stretch of red-sauce joints on Mulberry Street patronized almost entirely by tourists.” While Chinatown expanded its borders, Little Itay kept diminishing.

But don’t tell that to John Delutro, the owner of the dessert shop Caffe Palermo on Mulberry Street in the heart of Little Italy. He opened it in 1973 with an investment he vows of $50 when he was 17-years-old and served at the outset as its barista, server and dishwasher. And now 50 years later, he’s doing his best to keep Little Italy alive and well.

In fact, he’s officially opened his second Caffe Palermo, next door to the original, in late September, which specializes in pizza. And in November 2022, he debuted a new pasta eatery across the street, The Pasta Boss, recruiting a chef from Naples, Italy, so he owns three different eateries, all on Mulberry Street.

A long-term owner of a 50-year-old dessert shop Caffe Palermo in Little Italy has opened a pizza restaurant and pasta eatery, all on Mulberry Street, dedicated to keeping the street alive and well.

Delutro’s Nickname: Baby John the Cannoli King

And Delutro is one of those quintessential New York City characters, who has verve and pizzazz. His nickname is Baby John the Cannoli King. When NY1 News did a recent segment on the Feast of San Gennaro, the open-air food festival that takes place annually in Little Italy in mid-September, NY1 News reporter Roger Clark led by interviewing John Delutro.

Why is it so critical for Delutro to keep Little Italy humming along? He says he was born and raised there, and back then, “We slept on fire escapes, never locked our doors, and knew everyone in the building. Little Italy used to stretch to the Bowery but not anymore.”

His grandparents moved from Italy to Mulberry Street so it has a special place in his heart. “It’s like family,” he declared.

His original Caffe Palermo, Delutro explained, specializes in “Italian desserts, coffee and my signature, Mulberry Street wine.” In fact, he serves a variety of coffee blends, stretching from Colombia to Ethiopia.

While most restaurateurs these days tap angel investors or private equity money to expand, or at the least, take out an SBA loan, Delutro financed his new eateries with money saved.

With his new Caffe Palermo, the pizza joint, he’s more than doubling his clientele. The original Caffe Palermo seats 65 people inside while the new one accommodates 45 inside and 100 outside.

The New Caffe Palermo Offers More Than Desserts

And the new Caffe Palermo goes beyond desserts; it offers margarita pizza, vegan pizza, as well as classic pepperoni pizza. It will serve lunch, dinner, and, also offer Italian desserts.

Or as Delutro described it, a guest can have pizza for dinner at one Caffe Palermo and walk next door to the other for dessert, a double-header.

And why bring over a chef from Naples to cook at Pasta Boss? “When you open a Chinese restaurant, you hire a Chinese chef, when you open a Mexican restaurant, you hire a Mexican chef,” he replied.

Asked about his favorite dishes, he replied “the lasagna will knock you out and meatballs are terrific.”

One Thing About Little Italy Delutro Doesn’t Like

But there’s one thing about what goes at many eateries in Little Italy that Delutro doesn’t like. He calls it “hawking,” where a host stops you on the street, and shoves a menu into a pedestrian’s hands trying to lure them into their restaurant. “We never do any hawking,” he declared.

To promote his new eateries, he’s launching an advertising campaign at Kennedy Airport and Newark Airports, putting up posters of his restaurants, to lure tourists in. He answers every Instagram comment on Caffe Palermo’s account to encourage word-of-mouth.

What lures people to his dessert shop, pizza place and Italian restaurant? With no lack of self-restraint, Delutro said, “My being there. I greet every single customer, invite them in with open arms, whether they come from Austria, Australia, or Cuba. Welcome to my home,” he tells them.

The former showman P.T. Barnum, who founded Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, could learn something about promotion from Delutro, the restaurateur dedicated to keeping Little Italy thriving.

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