It's quite a shock to see that New York's Little Italy -- once a thirty-block neighborhood that was home to a good portion of the city's 400,000 Italians -- has dwindled to three blocks. The tenement my great-grandparents lived in still has an Italian restaurant on the first level, but its cooking is for tourists, not hungry immigrants. Most everything else on Mulberry Street plays to tourists, too, even the Italian American Museum, whose founder, Dr. Joseph Scelsa, tells me something that I'll hear, both spoken and in my head, as I talk to off-the-boat Italians about the differences between us and Italy: "Italian Americans are in a time warp. They still think of Italy the way it was when their ancestors arrived here." Neither he nor Francesco Teoli, the Italian-born owner of an exotic-car shop who braved the bitterly cold drive from Long Island in his customer's heaterless original 500, is amused by the tricolori tassel I hung from the new car's rearview mirror. And when I point out that his customer's car has a red horn hanging from its mirror, he sneers: "Typical American." I'm glad he didn't see that my 500's trunk was full of boxes of ravioli or notice the dirty, tongue-in-cheek license plate I put on it.
We headed out onto the salt-covered streets of New York, and each and every time I heard the words "Fix It Again, Tony," Scelsa's theory about Italian Americans was proved correct. Not that you can blame Americans for their preconceived notions of modern Fiats. The last time the brand was sold here, they were the miserable cars that, in the words of my father, "your grandfather kicked and cursed at."
It takes all of two seconds to see that the new 500 is a whole new cannoli. Even if you ignore its adorable styling inside and out (and that's a tall order), it's a magnificent piece of engineering. With the possible exception of Fiat's clever but clattery Multiair variable valve lift system, there are no technological revelations here -- just a really good car. The 1.4-liter engine produces 101 hp, 98 lb-ft of torque, and a good chunk of noise under the hood-but it's never harsh, always responsive, and has a commendably robust torque curve. An optional Aisin six-speed automatic is exclusive to the North American 500, but the standard five-speed manual is a model of city-driving habitability, with a light clutch and a shifter sticking out of the dashboard less than two fist-widths away from the steering wheel.