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Arthur Avenue: New York's Real Little Italy is in da Bronx!
January 4, 2012 By Ellen Parlapiano
My love affair with Arthur Avenue began many years ago with a carton of cold cuts. My husband, Bob, and I were newlyweds, and had just moved from the Bronx, where we were born and raised, to a suburb in Westchester County about 10 miles north. One Saturday morning, my in-laws, Nancy and Victor (officially known on their birth certificates as Annunziata and Vittorio—I'm just sayin') arrived at our door with an enormous care package of Arthur Avenue deli meats and crusty bread, apparently intended to ward off starvation. The bulging packages of soppressata, prosciutto, capicola, and fresh mozzarella, along with still-warm-from-the-oven pane di casa loaves, were unlike anything I'd ever tasted in my non-Italian, Oscar Meyer-bologna-on-Wonder Bread childhood. I was hooked. And I've been making regular pilgrimages to this Italian-flavored Bronx neighborhood ever since.
While Manhattan may have its tiny Little Italy on downtown Mulberry Street, for a more authentic and less touristy experience you've got to head uptown to Arthur Avenue in the Belmont section of the Bronx. You'll discover a working class immigrant neighborhood where little old ladies in black still order in Italian from the butchers and fish mongers, guys sit outside the social clubs sipping espresso and talking about the Yankees, and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel church bells summon parishioners to daily Mass.
But the main attraction is the food. The streets are crowded with bakeries, restaurants, pasta and pastry shops, and meat, fish and vegetable markets. Chefs Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray have been known to shop here for ingredients. Many celebrities have been spotted in the neighborhood eateries. It's said that Robert DiNiro, Al Pacino, and Anne Hathaway regularly phone in orders from Mike's Deli in the Arthur Avenue Retail Market. And, according to local legend, Joe Pesci's acting career was launched here too, when Robert DiNiro discovered him working as a maitre ‘d in one of the restaurants. (You can see DiNiro, Pesci and Chazz Palminteri—who grew up here—in the movie A Bronx Tale, which centers around this neighborhood in the 1960s.)
As a child of the 60s himself, my husband, Bob, spent many a Saturday morning on Arthur Avenue, shopping with his parents. While Nancy and Victor are no longer with us, we do try to get down to Arthur Avenue as much as we can with our own kids for some of our favorite foods. Here are our don't-miss, Parlapiano picks.
Bread: Bob's parents always got their long seeded loaves from Madonia Brothers Bakery and the round peasant-style pane di casa from Addeo. Terranova has excellent round loaves too. I also adore Madonia's olive bread. Want look like a true Italian? Never ask for your bread sliced! It's sacrilegious! Just rip it off in hunks if you don't have a knife handy.
Cheese: For creamy mozzarella and ricotta cheese handmade fresh daily, squeeze into the narrow Calandra Cheese shop and wait your turn — you won't regret it. (You can pass the time by looking at the cute pig-shaped dried cheeses hanging in the window.) Casa Della Mozzarella deli also makes a fantastic mozzarella. Get it on a sandwich, or order a big ball or a bunch of smaller boconcinni. My cheese-aholic daughter Amy highly recommends both these places!
Cured meats and more: Head to Calabria Pork Store for all sorts of Salumi—the Italian word for cured meats made from pork. Choose from pepperoni, prosciutto di Parma, capicola, mortadella, and sweet or hot soppressata—all sliced razor thin. Can't decide? Do like we do and get a little of everything. They also make killer sausages here—not that you'll be cooking in your hotel room, but I thought you ought to know.
Pasta: When I want to cook ravioli or manicotti, I get it at Borgatti's, a family-run pasta shop that's been around since the 1930s. Even if you're not buying anything, it's fun to watch the staff roll and cut the pasta dough by hand. But don't expect any hoity-toity fillings like goat cheese or butternut squash. For ravioli, you've got two choices: Traditional ricotta cheese, or meat and spinach. Period. Your options are greater with the unstuffed pasta, which comes in spinach, whole wheat, carrot, tomato, or squid ink flavors.
Grocery stores and markets: Teitel Brothers is the place to go for Italian staples, like anchovies, canned tomatoes, dried porcini mushrooms, balsamic vinegars, and hard-to-find Sicilian olive oils. Shimmy your way to the counter, past the crates of figs, nuts and salt cod. A little further down the block is The Arthur Avenue Retail Market, patterned after the grand indoor markets of Italy, and filled with food stalls from the local merchants. It reminds me of Mercado Centrale in Florence, only smaller. You can get pretty much everything here: From flowers and vegetables to sandwiches and hot food to cigars rolled right before your eyes. This is the only place Bob has been able to find cardoons, a vegetable that looks like celery but tastes more like artichokes. His mom used to bread and fry it. Toward the back of the market is Mike's Deli, a great place to grab a sandwich. Order one of the humorously named focaccia combos (like The Three Tenors, with prosciutto, mortadella and capicola piled on top of smoked mozzarella—"It's something to sing about," says the description; or The Virgin Mary, all-white, all-mozzarella, all the time—"It's a blessing," the menu says.). Or dig into their famous eggplant parmigiana; it was featured on Throwdown with Bobby Flay.
Restaurants: When we want a no-frills, old-school, red-sauce meal, we go to Dominicks. You sit at communal tables covered with plastic cloths (expect to get very cozy with your neighbor), and drink your wine from a juice tumbler. There's no printed menu. The waiter just tells you what he has, or asks what you're in the mood for: "You want osso bucco? Some nice linguine and clams?" We always start with the antipasto salad (who knew iceberg lettuce piled with cold cuts could taste so good); and Bob usually orders a bowl of mussels that could feed a small village. If you're not sure what to order, do what I do. Spy on what others are having and tell your waiter you want that. Important to know: They don't take reservations. Also, you won't get an itemized bill. In fact, you won't get a bill at all. The server tells you what you owe, and you pay. Simple. Also, bring cash, cause they don't take credit cards. Another neighborhood favorite is Mario's. For something a little fancier, try Roberto's or Trattoria Zero Otto Nove.
Pastry: Many of the restaurants don't serve dessert, but that's OK, cause it gives you an excuse to sample the pastry shops. You can't go wrong at Artuso's, Gino's or DeLillo's, but Bob's dad knew the owner at Egidio's, so that's our main source for cannoli and the yummy clam-shaped pastry called sfogliatelle (New Yawkas pronounce this "sfoyadel"). There are tables here, so you can order espresso too. Or just get everything to go. We usually take home a box of pastry, some cookies (the pignoli made with almond paste and pine nuts are my favorites), and Matt refuses to leave without a bag of their anisette biscotti, the very same ones Nonna Nancy used to bring him as a toddler. And I'm not ashamed to say that we usually tear into the bag on the car ride home!
If you go:
- Getting there: The easiest way from Manhattan is to take the Metro North Harlem line from Grand Central Terminal to the Fordham station. Cross Fordham Road and walk about 5 blocks east on Fordham to Arthur Avenue (along the way you'll pass Fordham Plaza and Roosevelt High School, and you'll see the Fordham University campus across the street). Turn right onto Arthur Avenue and walk about 3 more blocks to 187th Street. Most of the shops and restaurants are on Arthur Avenue and along 187th.
- Go on a weekday or a Saturday. Most of the establishments are closed on Sundays. It's best to go in the daytime—lots of the shops close by 6 pm, and the surrounding neighborhood can be a bit dicey at night.
- Combine it with a trip to two New York attracions, the Bronx Zoo or New York Botanical Garden, or a day exploring City Island. All are nearby, and are also on my list of top Bronx sights!
More info: www.arthuravenuebronx.com
(Top photo credit: Leonard J. DeFrancisci)