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Q&A With Agata De Santis: New Short Film Looks at E Rossi & Company

By on Monday, October 30th, 2023 at 2:59 pm | 1,820 views

E Rossi and company is the oldest souvenir shop in Little Italy

E Rossi Company is a souvenir shop in Little Italy, Manhattan, the oldest in the neighborhood

E. Rossi & Company is the oldest souvenir shop in Manhattan’s Little Italy. It outlasted the oldest cheese shop, Alleva Dairy, which closed in March. It remained open even when the oldest pizzeria, Lombardi’s, was closed for a decade in the 1980s. And today it’s just a few doors down from Ferrara Bakery, the oldest bakery.

Ernesto Rossi, an immigrant from Naples who arrived at the start of the 20th century, opened the shop in 1910 at 187 Grand Street. The shop originally was focused on selling published sheet music with an emphasis on ethnically Italian tunes. Rossi also manufactured piano rolls for player pianos, and eventually sold 78rpm records.

Music was central to the shop. Rossi would return to Naples each year to attend the Festival of Piedigrotta, a music festival that began in the 1800s but no longer exists. And he became a leader in publishing Sceneggiata, a music soap opera style common in Naples. The style is known for melodrama plots and musical dialogue, reaching its peak popularity between the 1920s and 1940s. And E Rossi & Company played a pivotal role in preserving the style.

The store continually evolved, growing into a hub for Italian and Italian American culture. Rossi added books about Italian culture early on, but over the years the inventory grew to include souvenirs, trinkets, tchotchkes, and other mementos. There are numerous specialty tools for making Italian foods, like cannoli molds and different types of pasta shapes. In the 1990s, the shop was selling a series of t-shirts featuring famous Italians. One included Mussolini, which sparked a reported piece and a bit of outrage in New York Magazine around 1993.

Today there are still t-shirts in the shop, but largely featuring less controversial Italian figures like Dominick the Christmas Donkey. There is also a wall of Italian-made moka pots, tea towels for every province in Italy, and religious iconography. And if you ever needed a sign declaring certain parking spaces were reserved for Italians Only or Sicilians Only, E Rossi is the place to go .

The tiled sign at the entrance to the storefront for E Rossi and company is the oldest souvenir shop in Little Italy

The entrance has E Rossi Company has tiled letters on the front step

E Rossi & Company has embraced the superlative, the oldest Italian shop in Little Italy, but like many businesses with such longevity, it has not always been at the same location. The shop first relocated in 1936 to the corner of Grand and Mulberry. Seventy years later, facing a big rent increase in 2005, the shop moved once more, two doors down to 193 Grand Street to it’s current location.

The shop has stayed within the Rossi family. Luigi Rossi took over from his father and worked there until his death at the age of 95. He died a few months after the store moved in 2006. His son Ernest officially took over the shop, although he had been working alongside his father for years. He’d actually first started working at the shop the age of seven cleaning up and assembling keychains for a dollar a week. The trinkets had to be connected to the ring. When he married his wife Margaret, she joined him at the shop. Both continued to work there up until her death in 2021. They were married 51 years.

Margaret had contracted COVID becoming one of the many faces of the pandemic’s loss. It was a tough time for the shop. Freddy, a family friend who helped run the shop alongside the Rossis, also succumb to COVID. By then, the pandemic had already taken a toll on E Rossi & Company. The store depends on tourists, and there were few of them in 2020. The challenges left the future of the shop uncertain. A GoFundMe in 2021 was launched to help keep it going.

The shop has begun to modernize and even has a website offering up many of the products to consumers or to other Italian Americana shops, but Rossi fears he’ll be forced to move again soon because of rising rents.

Trinkets fill the store and there is an emphasis on religious icons

Shelves of religious icons fill the front window of E Rossi and Company

Filmmaker Agata De Santis first came across the shop several years ago while researching her 2010 documentary Mal’Occhio. Mal’Occhio translates to mean “the evil eye,” which is somewhat less nefarious than it sounds. The tradition originates in Sicily and essentially is the belief that people can unintentionally pass bad vibes onto others by showing even the slightest bit of admiration. E Rossi and Company is a purveyor of trinkets such as the Italian horn that is said to protect the wearer from such dark magic.

In her latest film, De Santis sat down with Ernest Rossi to discuss his shop, his life, and the future. The film was shot on location in the store in 2022. The film, Rossi and Company, is set to debut this week at the Big Apple Film Festival on November 3rd. Check out the trailer here. The film will also be screened in Yonkers at the YoFiFest.

Agata De Santis headshot, photo courtesy of the filmmaker

Agata De Santis, director of the film Rossi and Company. Photo provided courtesy of the filmmaker

I spoke to Agata De Santis over an email exchange about the film, the store, and the future of Italian culture in North America. De Santis, who is based in Montreal, Canada, is of Italian descent.


RED SAUCE BLOG: How did you first come across Ernest Rossi and his shop?

AGATA DE SANTIS: I met Ernest when I was doing research for my 2010 documentary film about Mal’occhio. I was looking for a souvenir shop in New York that sold mal’occhio amulets and of course it was Ernest’s shop I came across. I do remember visiting his shop before that when his dad was still there. But at the time I was just a typical tourist in Little Italy.

RED SAUCE BLOG: What was the moment, the inspiration, that you felt compelled to tell his story on film?

DE SANTIS: Ever since I interviewed Ernest for my 2010 documentary on mal’occhio, I knew I wanted to film with him again. I made it a point (still do) to visit Ernest every time I was in New York and we would spend hours chatting. And every time I would think, I wish I was filming this. He really is the quintessential story of Italians in New York’s Little Italy. Last year, I came across the call for submissions for the Russo Brothers Italian American Film Forum – an initiative from the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF). To submit you did not have to be American, you just had to have an Italian-American story to tell. So I thought, why not pitch a short documentary on Ernest. And I got the grant! Ernest’s story deserves a feature length documentary. But for now I am content with the short format.

RED SAUCE BLOG: What’s your approach to finding a person’s narrative? Do you rely on an impromptu conversation on camera or are you thinking about the story arc before the camera is rolling?

DE SANTIS: When I prepare for a sit down interview I always have a list of questions – some specific, some vague. I already have a first draft, if you will, of the story arc. But I listen. And some new questions will evolve from there. With Ernest, I knew the story arc I wanted to create and came prepared accordingly. But he still surprised me with some great stories… and a wonderful serenade!

RED SAUCE BLOG: I’ve been inside the shop. It’s filled wall-to-wall with merchandise. Was it a challenge as a filming location?

DE SANTIS: Filming at E. Rossi and Company was definitely a challenge. I had warned my director of photography, Elias Varoutsos, about the space, so he was mentally prepared. We kept equipment to a minimum. We embraced the space. That great shot of Ernest as he speaks directly into the camera… all Elias’ idea! He’s was like, we have to give the audience a sense of the space in this one shot!

RED SAUCE BLOG: The story of Rossi and Company seems to be one that is all too common among Little Italys across North America–rising rents and an older generation of business owners rapidly reaching retirement age. Is this the end of an era or do you see these neighborhoods having a future?

DE SANTIS: It’s really a tough period for Little Italies around the world. Some are disappearing. Others are adapting and changing. I’ve been visiting New York City’s Little Italy since the mid-90’s. It’s not the same. The Little Italy in my hometown of Montreal is not what it was a generation ago either. But I can use Montreal as example of hope for the future. The main strip of Little Italy was always Boulevard St-Laurent between Jean Talon and St-Zotique streets. That strip is losing its Italian identity. But… the side streets, St-Zotique, Belanger, Dante, etc, are seeing a growth of Italian cafes, restaurants and shops by young Italian-Montreal entrepreneurs. These spots are novel. They are popular amongst locals and tourists, Italian and non-Italian. They are the future.

RED SAUCE BLOG: A lot of your work is about documenting traditions of the Italian diaspora. Your previous film Mal’Occhio, explores the evil eye – and the cures from an older generation. Ernest Rossi’s shop is also endangered. Do you see your work as documenting a rapidly fading past or as an active intervention with the hope of keeping these traditions alive?

DE SANTIS: I don’t think I made a conscious decision to make films about the Italian diaspora, but it seems to be the path I’ve taken. As a child of Italian immigrants, I am definitely fascinated by all things “Italo,” both Italian-Canadian and Italian-American. I’m a firm believer in documenting our past, but… also embracing change. As a new generation comes into adulthood, our Italian traditions will change. I know it’s a fact that the older generation – especially community leaders in both the U.S. and Canada – grapple with. It’s probably why they hold on to community leadership positions for longer than they should. What we must do as a community, and also as individuals, is document our past and our present, so those traditions that will fade away will be properly preserved for future generations to learn about.

RED SAUCE BLOG:What’s your favorite trinket from the shop?

DE SANTIS: My favorite trinkets at Ernest’s shop are without a doubt the mal’occhio amulets! He’s got a great variety which he has made in Italy (yeah not China!) specifically for his shop.


Film Information

A new short film by Agata De Santis Featuring Ernest Rossi

Big Apple Film Festival
Friday, November 3, 3:15PM
at Cinema Village
22 E 12th St, New York, NY 10003

“YoFiFest” Yonkers Film Festival
Saturday, November 11 at 4:00PM
the YoFi Digital Media Art Center
28 Wells Ave, Building 3, 5th Floor, Yonkers, NY 10701

Shop Information

E. Rossi & Company
193 Grand Street
New York, NY