Woman Behind Little Italy’s Merchants Association In Midst of San Gennaro Festival

Rossana Russo, second-generation owner of Lunella on Mulberry Street and president of the Little Italy Merchants Association, dishes on her plans to retain the Italian culture of the neighborhood. Even as Little Italy has shrunk in recent years, the 97 year old San Gennaro festival in Little Italy now underway–which celebrates the patron saint of Naples, Italy and runs to Sept. 24–still draws over one million visitors to the downtown neighborhood. [While she is supportive and benefits from the ten day celebration, the festival is actually run by Figli di San Gennaro.]

| 18 Sep 2023 | 11:18

Rossana Russo’s rich history in Little Italy dates back to when her parents, both Italian natives, settled on Grand Street and met on Mott St. at a long since gone Five and Dime, and became restaurant owners in the neighborhood in 1984.

When they passed away–her mother Gaetana “Lunella” in 2019 and her father Antonio in 2020–she was faced with the decision of what to do with their restaurant Lunella at 173 Mulberry Street.

“At that moment, I was like, ‘They literally dedicated their life to this to give me a good life, so I’m going to take it over and make them proud’,” said Russo on Sept. 14, the first day of the Feast of San Gennaro, which runs until Sept. 24 in Little Italy.

“This is what you do when you’re part of an Italian family.”

Russo, who studied psychology at Manhattan College, also took on the role of president of the Little Italy Merchants Association, in an effort to retain the Italian culture in the area, which she said is diminishing. [Although the restaurants in her group experience their busiest ten-day stretch of the year during San Gennaro, it is another group, Figli di San Gennaro that runs the actual festival.]

“It’s heartbreaking. We’re becoming smaller and smaller every day,” she lamented of the shrinking footprint of Little Italy in recent years. “A lot of our ethnic roots aren’t here anymore and that’s something that I can’t stomach.”

Tell us about your parents and the history of the restaurant.

My mom is from Bari, Altamura, which is known for their bread and my dad is from Sicily, from Cantania. They immigrated over in the early ‘60s, met here, got married. When they moved from Italy, they moved right here, onto Grand Street and they met on Mott Street at a Five and Dime. He was buying a mirror and I think it was just a pickup line, he asked my mom what her opinion was. They were married in the late ‘60s, had me. Our first restaurant was Santa Lucia on Mulberry. While that was open, we opened Villa Armando in Williston Park, Long Island. Then we opened Costa Azzurra in 1984. At one time, we had two on this block, and then we finally sold Costa Azzurra and bought this building in 2000 and then opened Lunella, right before 9/11. We literally opened a month before.

When did you take over the restaurant? Were you always involved?

I was always a restaurant brat, because I always came in and helped on weekends, but, I have my degrees in psychology. As my parents became older, it kind of became apparent that I had to help them out more. I was married, divorced now, and have my amazing son, so helping them was an easier way of life, I had more flexibility with scheduling. And as they really became elderly and eventually passed away, I was like, “They came to this country, worked their butts off, built a legacy and who am I to not continue it?”

How do you prep for the Feast of San Gennaro?

We start buying products about a week and a half in advance and we start prepping everything. So whether it be arancini [rice balls], meatballs, you just start doing massive amounts of prep work. These 10 days will be the highest grossing for the entire year.

What are the bestsellers on your menu?

Cause it’s Little Italy, the Fettuccine Alfredo. We have a Fettuccine Rossana, which is really yummy. It has shrimp in it and it’s in a nice cream sauce. I’ll tell you my favorite thing on the menu though. Actually, there’s a couple. I love our eggplant parm; it’s outstanding. I’m Sicilian, so it’s gotta be, if it’s not, it’s embarrassing. Our lasagna is by far my most favorite. And then we also do a really good artichoke ravioli with a lemon cream sauce.

What are the best and worst parts of your job?

I would say the best part, for me, anyway, is the creativity. I love menu development, restaurant décor, those are things that really get me going. And customer service, you meet really cool and interesting people. I would say the worst part is the unexpected, and that can mean anything, a Saturday night and your busboy calls out or your delivery doesn’t arrive.

Your 17-year-old son Matteo is an actor. Does he help with the business?

He does, but he really focuses on his studies. He does acting, but he’s also a singer-songwriter. He’ll come in and help for the feast. But I will say, his schedule is so demanding because he does his acting, he goes to Lee Strasberg and he also does lessons on Long Island at Take 2 Actor’s Studio. And he also studies with Badiene Magaziner at Juilliard. He’s a junior ambassador for Rockers on Broadway [a charity event for the arts education nonprofit The Path Fund]. He was in “The Many Saints of Newark,” “Billions,” “The Equalizer,” so he’s very ambitious.

What does your role entail as president of the Little Italy Merchants Association?

Leading the merchants and leading the neighborhood. I took it over for a couple of reasons. One because I felt like we needed new leadership, but more so because this area, unfortunately, is losing a lot of its vibrance. I took it over because I want to infuse this neighborhood with Italian culture again, that’s my main mission above everything else.

To learn more, visit www.lunellas.com