Buongiorno, Arthur Avenue

An insider's guide to this Little Italy in nearby Bronx. (Warning: don't read on an empty stomach)


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Little Italy in the Bronx

 

Eating Your Way through a Century

of Tradition in Belmont

 

By Alice K. Thompson

Photography by John Fortunato

 

Cars with license plates from all over the East Coast double-park as shoppers pop in and out of the stores, visitors and shop owners gossip and trade recipes  (often in Italian), and outdoor café tables crowd sidewalks awash with the smells of roasted coffee, freshly baked bread, and the heady scent of marinara wafting from restaurant kitchens. The  food has acted like a magnet, keeping some 60 family-owned Italian businesses intact (some into the third or fourth generation), luring former residents and their children and grandchildren back to shop and eat week after week—and attracting new groups of foodies who make pilgrimages to the Bronx for the food, the aromas, the street life, and the unique spirit of the place.  

 

“It’s a cultural immersion,” says Chappaqua resident Kevin Kitson about what’s been bringing him to the Arthur Avenue neighborhood for 40 years. “We’re all joined together by the common love of good food. I’m Irish, but I learned about food and about wine from the neighborhood—today I shop like an Italian.”

 

And the value? “You’d think an army of thrifty Old World grandmothers were brow-beating the merchants into offering everything at prices from another decade,” jokes David Leite, a Manhattan-based food writer and publisher of Leite’s Culinaria.com, who most recently traveled to the Bronx to buy fresh tagliatelle and pancetta to make his signature pasta carbonara. “It’s half of what I’d pay downtown—it reminds me of the prices and culture of stores my family went to more than 30 years ago.”

 

The story how this tiny section in the central Bronx, which  managed to survive a century of change, remaining one of the most vibrant ethnic communities in the country, begins at the turn of the last century. Italian immigrants began settling in the Belmont section of the Bronx because many were employed in major construction projects in the area’s three cultural institutions—the Bronx Zoo, the New York Botanical Garden, and Fordham University—all within walking distance of the intersection of Arthur Avenue and 187th Street, the heart of this thriving Little Italy. By the 1950s, at what Joe Cicciu, executive director of the Belmont/Arthur Avenue Local Development Corporation, calls the area’s “height of Italianness,” some 50,000 Italian-Americans lived in Belmont. Today, the number has shrunk to closer to 5,000, but it’s hard to tell on a recent bustling Saturday when tutto il mondo seemed to be out shopping and eating.

 

But learning, in addition to eating, is what a trip here is about. “If you want good food, you’re going to want to go where shop owners can tell you about each product, how to cook it, how to serve it,” says real estate attorney Anthony Paone, a Fordham graduate who makes the 25-minute drive from his home in Briarcliff Manor to shop in the neighborhood at least once a week. “It’s like a live version of the Food Network. I love the action, the way they do things, and the way they entertain the customers.” 

 

And entertaining it is. So trot out your knowledge or ignorance, dust off your Italian phrase book, and remember to laugh and joke—and maybe even flirt a little. And do take all those samples offered to you. You’ll be in for a unique education. Besides, an afternoon or two strolling the streets here just might leave you feeling like an insider.

 

Wandering from shop to shop, pausing to ask questions about whatever piques your interest is the best itinerary on Arthur Avenue, but below are some (though by no means all) of the outstanding culinary stops in the neighborhood.

 

While Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church (187th Street between Hughes and Belmont Avenues), which will celebrate its centennial in 2006, is the spiritual heart of the neighborhood (two masses a day are still said in Italian), Arthur Avenue Retail Market (enter at 2344 Arthur Ave.) has historically been its gastronomic center. This 2,000-square-foot market was founded in 1940 during Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia’s campaign to get the city’s ubiquitous pushcart vendors off the streets and into more sanitary surroundings. Once home to as many as 50 merchants in tiny stalls, today you’ll find 12 businesses. One of the most popular is Mike’s Deli (718-295-5033), where the famously charming Michele (“Mike”) Greco holds court behind a picturesque counter packed with olives and antipasti and framed by ropes of salami and cheeses. Lunchtime finds a crowd of cops, firefighters, local business people, and Fordham students lining up for sandwiches and panini to eat at the few plastic tables here. During off-hours, tourists and housewives stock up on the celebrated selection of cured meats, antipasti, and staples like olive oils and pasta.

 

Within shouting distance (and you’ll hear the shouts, mostly in Italian) is Peter’s Meat Market (718-367-3136), where a brigade of butchers wait on customers, pack special orders, and hand-trim the diverse offerings. Peter’s displays a gorgeous array of beef, lamb, poultry, and pork, but it’s also a popular stop for hard-to-find organ meats and game. “I just can’t get fresh rabbit in Westchester,” says Linda Kalman, a self-described “dedicated cook,” who cans her own tomatoes and travels from her Armonk home in search of the neighborhood’s selection and quality. Less adventurous cooks also line up here for what co-owner Mike Rella calls “convenience foods”: ready-to-grill, sear or bake-kebabs, braciola (Italian roulade, usually veal-wrapped ground meat), meatballs, and a huge variety of breaded or stuffed chops and cutlets.

 

Just outside the doors of the market is another favorite stop for meats, Biancardi’s (2350 Arthur Ave., 718-733-4058). In addition to being a full-service butcher shop (the carcasses hanging in the window will give you an idea of just how comprehensive its services are), the Biancardi family’s store makes a number of fresh sausages not often found outside Italy, including cotechino (the traditional pork sausage for bollito misto, the boiled meat-and-vegetable dish that’s the ultimate Italian comfort food) and liver sausage, as well as its own pancetta and silky, lean prosciutto.

 

But for the full porcine experience, head to Calabria Pork Store (2338 Arthur Ave., 718-367-5145), the neighborhood’s salumeria extraordinaire, redolent of nearly 20 kinds of sausages, fresh and cured, that are made and aged here. Hundreds of salamis, large and small, spicy and sweet, flavored with wine, garlic, or herbs and spices—hang from the ceiling. You’ll have to rely on the brusque counter staff to guide you through the offerings, but it’s worth it; discovering a salami perfectly matched to your palate is akin to finding true love.

 

It can seem that pork is king in this neighborhood, but seafood is taken very seriously, too. A stop at the alfresco raw bars for a dozen freshly shucked clams or oysters is the best introduction to the Avenue’s two fish stores, Randazzo’s Seafood (2327 Arthur Ave., 718-367-4139) and Cosenza’s Fish Market (2354 Arthur Ave., 718-364-8510). Inside, imported European specialties like sardines, cuttlefish, and branzini—and domestic offerings like crabs, steamers, and fin fish—all show the kind of phenomenal freshness you can credit third- and fourth-generation fishmongers. “Working side-by-side with your father and your grandfather gives you an education you just can’t get anywhere else,” explains Frank Randazzo of Randazzo’s Seafood. “And besides, we’ve known many of these customers all our lives. Working here is about much more than transactions, it’s really about relationships.”

 

Almost all the other merchants here seem to make their own fresh mozzarella, but Casa Della Mozzarella (604 E. 187th St., 718-364-3867) is the place to stop in for this creamy treat. At the back of this crowded shoebox of a shop, Sicilian-born Orazio Carciotto can usually be seen up to his elbows in warm, salty water, kneading, stretching, and forming the luscious, snow-white cheese that has little in common with rubbery commercial varieties. Nothing beats the plump, bite-sized bocconcini knots Orazio twists off with awesome dexterity; customers pause to pop one in their mouths before they’ve even left the shop—and by all means follow suit. Still warm from their briney bath, these incredibly tender nuggets have elicited superlatives ranging from “virginal” to “orgasmic.”

 

Also known for superb homemade mozzarella is Calandra Cheese (2314 Arthur Ave., 718-365-7572), and this tiny storefront is the only place in the neighborhood that still makes fresh ricotta—full of the sweetness of very fresh milk and so velvety one taste could put you off the supermarket variety for good. It’s phenomenal baked into lasagna or stuffed into manicotti, but by all means try it straight-up as well: a half-pound spread on crusty bread makes a wonderful appetizer, or a blissful lunch for two.

 

Few cooks can pass the enticing (and bargain-priced) goods that spill out from Teitel Brothers (2372 Arthur Ave., 718-733-9400):  pyramids of canned, imported tomatoes, gallons of olive oil, jars of capers and anchovies, and bins holding a rainbow of dried beans, from tiny jewel-toned lentils to Italian staples like cannellini and favas. The Teitel family has been importing goods from Italy for 90 years, and the selection is outstanding in both quality and value. “There’s a new study that says that olive oil has the same anti-inflamatory effects as aspirin,” says third-generation owner Eddie Teitel. And at these prices, we can afford to bathe in it. Don Luigi extra-virgin, the family’s own brand packed with the sunny flavor of ripe Sicilian olives, is just $7.49 a liter—it’s an outstanding all-purpose oil for which you’d expect to pay twice that amount elsewhere. Fresh mozzarella di buffala, imported from Italy and richer and slightly tangier than the cow’s milk variety, is sold here for just $4.95 for a nine-ounce piece. And few shoppers leave without a slab of Teitel’s superior Parmigiano-Reggiano, aged three years and priced at just $7.99 a pound.

 

Looking at this abundance of cheese and oils will undoubtably have you thinking of pasta, and Borgatti’s (632 E. 187th St., 718-367-3799) has been the neighborhood stop for fresh egg pasta for more than 70 years. Three generations of the Borgatti family still cut the pasta to order here, and the bare-bones shop seems to have changed little since Roosevelt was president. Choose the width you’d like your pasta from a chart on the counter, and they’ll cut it to order from sheets of the silky pale-yellow dough. Choose No. 2, a thick fettuccine, and you’ll see the shop’s original 1935 hand-cranked cutting machine in action. This pasta freezes well, so it’s worth stocking up—and, at $1.70 per pound, it’s prudent to do so.

 

Bread is a subject about which Italians are passionate and, with six bakeries here, it seems everyone in the neighborhood has an opinion about where to go to buy what kind of loaf. Addeo Bakers (2372 Hughes Ave., 718-367-8316) makes a superb, crusty, round pane di casa (house bread) with a loose crumb that’s perfect for dipping in olive oil.  Thursdays through Saturdays, you can also pick up specialty breads like ciccioli, studded with salami and spiced ham, and fragrant olive bread. Around the corner is Terranova Bakery (691 E. 187th St., 718-733-3827) where all the breads are baked in a massive 100-year-old coal oven. The Tuscan-style pane di casa here is a revelation, gorgeously crusty on the outside and with just the right amount of chew inside; it’s sold in rounds from 12 ounces to a hefty four pounds. Focaccia, taralli (small, dry, pretzel-like breads), and a number of specialty breads are all excellent here as well.

 

They make some mean cannoli at De Lillo Pastry Shop (606 E. 187th St., 718-367-8198), and it’s hard to resist other classics like eclairs, mini fruit tarts, and tartufo, but this is also the best place to get your Italian ice. “There’s no cheating here, no watering down the flavors,” observes Joe Ciucci, a devotee of De Lillo’s ices. What you’ll get here is rich, thick, and packed with flavor, akin to gelato. A few tables here let you sit down and order coffee as well. 

 

Most locals and merchants will tell you they need more than one coffee or espresso a day, and it’s likely they’ll take one of them at Roma Luncheonette (636 E. 187th St., 718-367-9189). Bolivian-born bothers Edwin and Adalid Orozco, who bought this unassuming coffee shop five years ago from longtime Italian owners, continue the shop’s excellent coffee tradition. You can get a cup to go, or spend a few minutes at one of four stools in front of the tiny counter, or sit down at one of six small tables for Italian specialties like sausage and peppers. Arthur Ave. Café (2329 Arthur Ave., 718-562-0129), overseen by Antoinette Greco (call her Mrs. G), is another favored stop for a coffee or an aperitivo, and the outdoor seating just across from the Retail Market offers a primo spot for viewing the neighborhood action. Homemade cheesecakes are a specialty here; purists should stick with Mama Greco’s ricotta classic, but coconut, pistachio, and black-and-white are hard for the rest of us to pass up.

 

If all that shopping leaves you ready for a more substantial lunch or dinner, there are a dozen Italian restaurants in the neighborhood. Mario’s (2342 Arthur Ave., 718-584-1188) is the doyen of them all, having served Neapolitan classics here since 1919. It’s the kind of place where the eggplant parmigiana special is considered a side, waiters wear tuxedos, and luxe seems stuck in the 1970s—and it all works beautifully. The house marinara is a revelation: rich and chunky, but restrained enough to show the tomato at its best. It’s not on the menu, but cognoscenti know that Mario’s also makes the Bronx’s best pizza. “We like serving all our guests,” says owner Joseph Migliucci. “They are celebrities to us.”

 

It may sound like “The Land of No”  (no menu, no reservations, no credit cards—there isn’t even a price list), but diners have been saying a hearty yes to Dominick’s (2335 Arthur Ave., 718-733-2807) for close to half a century. You’ll sit at communal tables, negotiate a meal with the help of your waiter, then dig into archetypal Little Italy fare: classic pastas, veal almost anyway you like it, chicken cacciatore. How they calculate your tab at the end is a mystery even to the locals, but it’s guaranteed to be reasonable. Dining next to strangers can be a boon for solo diners or extroverts, but the staff will try to seat you with a bit of privacy if you ask nicely; one former resident claims to have (successfully) proposed to his wife here, so a romantic meal isn’t out of the question.

 

Romance is definitely in, however, at  Roberto’s (603 Crescent Ave., 718-733-9503), where the unmatched heavy wood tables and chairs, impossibly low lighting, and a downstairs wine cellar would seem more at home in the Tuscan countryside than on an urban side street. With a tenure of just 12 years here, it’s a definite newcomer, but charming chef-owner Roberto Paciullo has taken to the neighborhood as much as it has taken to him. The cuisine here is Italian, not Italian-American, and it’s some of the best in the city. The specials are particularly recommended (one resident has given Chef Roberto the sobriquet “The Mad Scientist of Food” in deference to his creativity), as is anything with seafood or cheese, much of which the restaurant sources from Italy.

 

Roberto’s doesn’t take reservations, and the staff is adamant about never hurrying diners, so expect a wait of up to an hour for dinner unless you arrive very late or very early. But this being Arthur Avenue, even waiting can be an education. Do like the locals do: order a drink, get comfortable, and trade a few neighborhood favorites with the people next to you. On Arthur Avenue, it’s a pretty good bet that you’ll share a common interest in great food.

 

Alice K. Thompson is a Manhattan-based food writer who, after having visited Arthur Avenue, is considering changing her last name to Thompsonelli.

 

Captions: (Clockwise from top to left) The price list at Borgatti’s Ravioli and Egg Noodles, welcome to “the neighborhood”, specialty Italian rounds; Pompeo Di Rende, co-owner of Dominick’s; fresh seafood, like these live crabs, abound on Arthur Avenue; Mario Borgatti of the shop for first-class pasta, Borgatti’s; fruity, sugared gems; a legion of dried sausages hanging from the ceiling at Calabria Pork Store.

 

Left to right: the owner of Calabria Pork Store with his grandson; an every-Italian-meal staple, pane di casa; a saint overlooks the blessed prosciutto hanging from the ceiling at Biancardi’s, a must-stop for meats.

 

(Clockwise from top left) Fresh pasta in ready-to-cut sheets at Borgatti’s; cured and pickled delights at Teitel Brothers grocery; prepare to make new friends at the communal tables at Dominick’s.

 

 

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