Arthur Avenue, New York City's Last Thriving Little Italy
The Bronx neighborhood known as Arthur Avenue is one of New York's last enclaves of small, family-run food shops, most of which have been in business for over 100 years. In 2008 I led by my first walking food tour of Arthur Avenue for the food buyers of Marks & Spencer in London who came to New York on a research mission. Since then I've been leading Arthur Avenue food tours to help people explore this iconic neighborhood that still does things in a decidedly old-fashioned way. Along with Christian, we lead tours for the New York Botanical Gardens as well as dozens of private clients and have been featured on CNN Travel, Westchester Magazine and USA Today.
Unique among NYC food tours, I introduce you to the people who actually make the food. Whenever possible, I take guests behind the counter to the ovens where bread is baked and the hidden tables where the cannoli shells are rolled and shaped. What's best about Little Italy in the Bronx is that it's like a time capsule of Italian foods, with many dishes and delicacies that can no longer be found even in Italy.
History of Arthur Avenue and Little Italy in the Bronx
This area was once farmland owned by the Lorillard family who moved their tobacco production from Lower Manhattan to the then pastoral Bronx. Their estate was called "Belmont" in the Gilded Age fashion to give an Italianate name to a mansion. (Bel-mont meaning beautiful hill.) It sat on the hill that is today occupied by Saint Barnabas Hospital. By the 1870s much of the Lorillard farmland was being auctioned off or donated to what would become the hospital, the New York Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo. Catherine Lorillard Wolfe requested that the street that ran across the old Belmont Mansion be named after her favorite president, Chester A. Arthur thus christening Arthur Avenue.
In 1878 the IRT Third Avenue Line elevated train opened which sparked an influx of German and Irish immigrants to this developing part of the Bronx. The area became Italian enclave in the late 1890s specifically because of the stonemason and landscaping jobs that were newly available at the New York Botanical Garden (where a Lorillard family snuff mill remains) , the Bronx Zoo and the Jerome Park Reservoir. The Bronx was also a cleaner, more spacious place to live as opposed to the cramped conditions in the Italian enclaves in East Harlem and Mulberry Street.
My great grandfather Albino Oteri settled in the area and opened a fish market at 2374 Arthur Avenue in 1916. The entire family lived upstairs. Directly next door was Teitel Brothers, operated by an Austrian-Jewish family who opened the same year and sold Italian provisions.
Arthur Avenue became the main shopping district for Italians and the street was lined with pushcarts selling fruit, vegetables, imported olive oil, tomatoes and dried salt cod. In 1940 the Arthur Avenue Retail Market opened as a giant food hall, part of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia's mission to get vendors off the street and into more sanitary spaces. Originally there were 150 stalls. Today there are a dozens stalls including Peter's Meat Market, Mike's Deli and Liberatore's where you can buy Italian plants and seeds.
After World War II, Albino's son John opened a butcher shop two doors down as people could now afford meat and baccala was swiftly declining in popularity. When Albino passed away, John moved the butcher shop into the old fish market and kept the apartment upstairs. As families grew and prospered, they began to move northward to Westchester and Connecticut. Still, Arthur Avenue remained the favored place to stock up on Italian food for their larger suburban refrigerators and pantries.
"Marty" and Arthur Avenue
In 1955, the butcher shop became the set for the opening scene of "Marty" starring Ernest Borgnine. A story about a lonely Italian-American butcher, the opening scene shows Marty attending to customers on a Saturday afternoon while they each harass him about still being single at the old age of 34. The film went on to win Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Screenplay for Paddy Chayefsky.
John eventually sold the butcher shop to Peter DeLuca who transformed it into Vincent's Meat Market, was also named one of New York's 10 best butcher shops by Gothamist. It looks very much the same and Peter's team of butchers offer service that is unparalleled elsewhere in the city.
Our Arthur Avenue food tour begins in front of the Arthur Avenue Retail Market where we peruse vegetables at Boiano's, learn abotu pasta imported from the Abruzzo at Mount Carmel Foods, followed by a visit next door to Calabria Pork Store where you'll see a ceiling made of sausages. Of course we'll say hi to Peter at the old family butcher shop and then stop at Biancardi's (once the arch rival of my Uncle John) for their excellent house-cured pancetta.
Supported by People Outside NYC
Little Italy in the Bronx is sustained by people who come back to "the old neighborhood" on weekends from their homes in Westchester, New Jersey, Long Island and Connecticut. On Saturday's especially, cars will pull up directly in front of Randazzo's or Cosenza's Fish Market so that shoppers can put their purchases directly into a cooler.
Though Italians mostly moved out of the neighborhood in the 1970s and 80s, the newer locals are nonetheless devoted to the Arthur Avenue shops. Students from nearby Fordham University will stumble into Tino's Delicatessen at 3pm where the Paciullo family lovingly serves them eggplant parm sandwiches. Immigrants from Mexico work in many of the shops and maintain and revere Italian food culture as it shares many similarities with their own. Excellent Mexican restaurants are popping up all over the area from inexpensive taco places that also feed the hungry college kids to sit-down restaurants like Estrellita Poblana where everything is fresh and regional. You'll also see many Albanian cafes and grocery stores from the immigrants who settled in the area in the 1990s, many of whom speak Italian fluently.
What to buy on Arthur Avenue
If you can't take a food tour with us, here's a short list of the things you absolutely can't miss:
- Go to Calandra's and ask for a sample of Prima Donna, an Italian cheese which tastes like fontina married gouda. Buy a quarter pound of the decadent Moliterno pecorino infused with abundant black truffles.
- Inside the Arthur Avenue Retail Market sort through the high quality pastas, flours, cookies, and canned tomatoes imported from Italy at Mount Carmel Foods
- Taste the best sfogliatelle outside of Naples at Marrone's Pastry Shop and then have a chocolate cannoli at Egidio's.
- Visit Addeo's bakery for a taste of the incredibly addictive "cheegola" bread. It's a ring studded with pork cracklings and made flaky by lard.
- On Saturdays only, go to Madonia for the white chocolate bread.
- Stock up on Edda Extra-Virgin olive oil at Teitel's. NYC chefs and restaurant owners know that Teitel has the very best prices in town.
- Buy a cake box full of ravioli from Borgatti's. They freeze very well and if ever there was a perfect example of food made with love, it's these ravioli.