Manhattan has Mulberry Street, Brooklyn has Bensonhurst, and the Bronx has Arthur Avenue. All three are neighborhoods that lay claim to being the Little Italy of New York, each steeped in tradition and red sauce. Struck by hunger-fueled curiosity and mid-August doldrums, this past weekend I took the D train uptown to scope out Arthur Avenue and assess if Bronx Italian-Americans offer genuine culinary competition.
Usually, I’m wary of gastronomic ethnic enclaves. They often become tourist traps, buoyed by hordes of Yelp foodie pilgrims and Guy Fieri or Paula Deen plugs. Eventually, the quality declines and overpriced, low-quality knockoff goods are readily peddled to visitors, desperate for an ‘authentic’ experience they can tweet. These sorts of places have ironically become the status quo in large cities: billed as the real deal but catering mainly to non-residents. The retail focus on tourists is symptomatic of a familiar mode of gentrification in which the legacy and vestiges of immigrant communities become the familiar real estate marketing theme of “a rich cultural history” (see: Lower East Side).
Belmont, in the Bronx, is a different story. Not easily accessible by train (about a 10-avenue walk from B and D Fordham Road stop), the fairly small Arthur Avenue — named after President Chester Arthur — could easily be missed amongst the nail salons, liquor stores and barbershops with an almost exclusively Latino clientele. Looking south at the intersection of 187th Street and Arthur Avenue, I was immediately awestruck by the overwhelming assemblage of bakeries, cafés, butcheries, delicatessens; fish, fruit and vegetable markets; pasta, pastry and cheese shops. The housing stock lining the avenue is mainly comprised of tenement-style buildings, built sometime in between the turn of the last century and the Great Depression, and smaller, four-unit brick and wood homes. Many apartments in the neighborhood are rent stabilized, and most of the recent development in the area are university housing for nearby Fordham students.
Arthur was relatively crowded on that Saturday, no doubt with hungry travelers from the Bronx Zoo and Botanical Gardens, mothers stocking up on ingredients for Sunday gravy, and nearby residents sipping espresso. My companion and I stopped to admire the spread at Teitel Brothers on 186th Street, a wholesale provisions and grocery store that beckons customers from the street corner with a cornucopia of spillover from the store: big jars of Francesconi tomatoes, green and silver drums of Edda olive oil, and imported tonno stacked in small tins.
I squeezed into the small entrance. Flanked on either side by floor-to-ceiling displays of all that is holy in Italian cuisine, the store resembled something akin to a candy shop: olives of all shapes, sizes and color; sunlight refracting through prism-like bottles of oil and vinegar; slabs of dusty white baccala laid out in wooden crates. Behind the counter were meat-slicers and fridges filled with various cheeses and cold cuts. Above me were low hanging vines of salumi, a jungle-scape of meat grazing my forehead. The odor, too, was intense and wonderful: the smell of a well-used Italian cucina, crossed with a library book.
I met the proprietor, Gilbert Teitel, while ordering my quarter-pound of hot sopressata. He told me he had taken over the family business from his father Jacob – an Austrian immigrant who opened the store in 1915 – and could still remember when horses and wagons dominated this stretch of the Bronx. Mr. Teitel now operates the business with his three sons, Jean, Michael and Eddie. The customers, many of whom looked older and distinguished in pressed outfits, seemed to be in a joking mood as they rested their elbows on the display cases: one man ribbed the brothers by calling them “aborigines” after they politely refused any photos (Their reluctance faded after their father consented to be photographed).
Before leaving, I asked Mr.Teitel if he could explain the worn Star of David tile mosaic I had noticed at the entrance. He explained his establishment is a Jewish deli in spirit. “Then where’s the corned beef?” I quipped, eliciting a few laughs from his sons off to the side. Mr. Teitel then clarified that a family of Austrian Jews running an Italian deli – the business his father had started nearly a hundred years ago – followed the same model that recent waves of Albanian and Mexican immigrants are currently adopting: finding and mastering jobs in the food industry, outside of their native cuisine.
We thanked the Teitels and left, clutching our sopressata as we turned down 186th to Addeo Gennaro & Sons bakery where we bought a small peasant boule – still warm from the oven – and tucked into it greedily, stuffing wafer-thin slices of salami into roughly torn pieces of bread.
We munched our makeshift sandwiches as we passed the Belmont Library and Fermi Cultural Center on our left. The next stop was the area’s famous retail market, a covered bazaar established by Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia to showcase the various businesses in the area under one roof. Home to an array of restaurants, delis and butchers, pastry shops, grocers, specialty importers and a handmade cigar rolling stand, the market is indeed impressive, although its offerings include kitschier elements like t-shirts and souvenirs emblazoned with Arthur Avenue branding. We decided to sit for table service at Mike’s Deli near the back, by now an institution in the neighborhood. After getting some assistance deciding from the impossibly dense menu, we ordered a small antipasti plate and two sandwiches (The Three Tenors hero, $8.50 for smoked mozzarella, prosciutto, mortadella and capicola – “It’s something to sing about,” says the description; and the King David hero, $9.50 for sopressata with chunks of 4-year old parmesan, roasted peppers and basil.)
Large glasses of Peroni were quaffed, and we quickly filled up on the antipasti plate of cheese, olives, meat and crostini, barely able to make a dent in the sandwiches (which we eventually had wrapped to go.) After browsing the market we left and walked across the street, now lumbering slightly from the lunch, to Morrone pastry shop for some dessert. Yes, I was full, but pastries never killed anyone, right? We bought two of each at reasonable prices: miniature cannolis (very good), miniature linzer tarts (good, slightly stale), raspberry hearts (the yellow semolina cookie is growing on me), and lace cookies (chewy and crisp, nutty).
Arthur Avenue is not immune to inflated prices in some of its restaurants ($17 appetizers), and even Mike’s Deli has both a Paula Deen and Bobby Flay’s sponsored-sandwich on the menu. Nonetheless, the sense of local identity on this street is strong, even if its endearing Old World-feel is increasingly out of step with shifting residential demographics. But Arthur Avenue is by no means the ethnic-enclave-as-theme-park that I’d feared. Maybe it’s the loyalty of the old-school clientele or the fact so many of the businesses are family-run. Maybe it’s the undeniable high quality of the ingredients for sale. Maybe it’s the neighborhood’s distance from the tourist-trod paths of Manhattan. Whatever the reason, Arthur Avenue has so far avoided the fate of Mulberry Street and other historic neighborhoods.
Leftovers dangling from our arms, we boarded the Bx15 bus at St. Barnabas hospital to the 6 train at 138th Street. Back on the subway, I drifted off to carbohydrate-induced sleep and awoke at 14th Street; looking up drearily from my seat, I became acutely aware of the crowd, the Bronx riders replaced by skinny-jean and espadrille-clad students, toting tote-bags from Whole Foods. My thoughts wandered from Ellis Island to Campari, to an image of Ray Liotta sweating, slicing slivers of garlic on a mandolin. But I was close to home now, plastic bags in hand, dinner in tow.
Photos by Samuel Freeman.
Samuel Freeman is a project associate at Urban Omnibus and a student at NYU’s Gallatin School for Individualized Study, where he majors in Environmental Psychology and Urban Design. Born and raised in Boston, he now lives in Manhattan.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.