Published November 05, 2015
Arthur Avenue in the Bronx is the kind of place where you might be bribed with a cannoli.
Many years ago, my father, a teacher, was begged by a student not to tell his parents he'd been caught fighting.
"I'll bring you a box of cannolis every Friday," promised the student, who worked at a pastry shop in this old-school Italian-American enclave.
My dad did not accept the cannolis. But as a kid growing up in nearby suburbs, I often had treats from Arthur Avenue that he brought home.
Then one day, I saw Arthur Avenue listed on an iPod app for New York City destinations and decided it was time to get to know the old neighborhood myself, before it morphed into some Disneyland of Italian-Americanness.
I'm happy to report that while Little Italy in downtown Manhattan has shrunk to barely two and a half blocks, what some call the "Real Little Italy" in the Belmont section of the Bronx is thriving, and it's as authentic as ever.
Visitors will readily find dozens of Italian restaurants, bakeries, butchers and produce stands that still sell all the goodies my grandfather remembers from growing up in the Bronx.
But it's the mix of the surly and solicitous on this several-block stretch of Arthur Avenue and the intersecting 187th Street that lets you know this is a real community, in which a slight wariness of outsiders can only slowly be scratched away to expose a deeper warmth.
Leave to others the affected display of intimacy or token use of ciao: On Arthur Avenue, if someone speaks to you in Italian, it's because he thinks you do. If someone greets you, it's because he knows you.
On a recent visit, as I tagged along with my father and grandparents to see the neighborhood through their eyes, my grandpa grabbed a hunk of meat at Biancardi's and exclaimed, "Pork butt! I haven't seen this in years!"
They used to call it tenderloin, explained Sal Biancardi, a third-generation butcher, and it can be hard to find these days.
But not here. My grandfather, Dominick, the son of an Italian immigrant and his Italian-American wife, had grown up in the Bronx, and he and my grandmother raised their kids there. (While my grandmother is the daughter of Russian immigrants, she's an Italian cook, taught by her mother-in-law.)
My generation was raised in the suburbs, but even there, when questions like "Where'd ya get the meat?" (or the raviolis, or the manicotti) were asked, the answer was usually "Arthur Avenue."
Dominick, who is 89, recalled that he first went to Teitel Bros., a wholesaler and retailer of Italian products from beans and olive oil to spices and tomatoes, around 1932. He didn't live especially close to Belmont — he remembers taking a streetcar with his mother to get there — but even back then, when the borough was full of Italians, it was the place to go.
In recent years, the area has been getting more attention. NYC & Company, the city's tourism arm, marketed it as part of its "Visit 9 in '09" campaign. The annual Ferragosto street fair, held this year on Sept. 11, has grown from drawing a few thousand to around 17,000 last year. And then there's the app.
But merchants promise that most of their clientele are still people who grew up in Belmont or whose parents used to live there, even though few Italian-Americans are still residents.
They report seeing a panoply of license plates each Saturday — from Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Vermont — as folks fill their trunks with delicacies and necessities for the week. A few hours on Arthur Avenue — and some innocent questions — will bear out that merchants are not focused on, and are even charmingly unprepared for, tourists.
A query about the differences among sausages with long Italian names in one store, for instance, only revealed what was already apparent: Some were thick and some were thin.
A friend remembers once visiting a shop and eagerly asking what kind of ravioli they had, anticipating pasta made with pumpkin or sage like one might see at an upscale market. Meat and cheese, the answer came back. She pressed. Meat and cheese, the salesman deadpanned again.
While Arthur Avenue has benefited from the general rise of Italian cuisine — Chris Borgatti of the renowned fresh pasta purveyor Borgatti's declares, "Italian food has surpassed French food" — it is not of the trend.
Most of the shoppers on Arthur Avenue, in other words, know what cervellata is (a kind of sausage, made with lamb at Peter's Meat Market). And they like their ravioli with either meat or cheese. (Borgatti's, though, does have a variety with spinach.)
Jerome Raguso, of Gino's Pastry Shop, calls the neighborhood a "family reunion." One of the joys to a visitor is observing those intimacies of customer and merchant. The other, of course, is eating.
A conversation about Arthur Avenue is a conversation about food, and it can be hard to go without getting requests.
A Scottish friend who went with me once loves the savory biscotti from Madonia Brothers bakery — made from their famous olive or multigrain breads and laced with rock salt. A neighbor of my parents put in an order for unsalted ricotta, made fresh daily (as is the mozzarella) at Calandra's cheese shop.
Sal Biancardi remembers a call from a woman in California looking for a sausage she remembered from her childhood. Did they still make it? They did, and it was on a plane shortly thereafter.
Down the block at Peter's Meat Market, Peter Servedio explained the neighborhood's enduring popularity as he surveyed a case full of sausages: one with broccoli rabe, another with fennel, a cervellata and a thin lucanica sausage.
"Let's face it," said Servedio, who is one of the owners of the butcher shop in the Arthur Avenue Retail Market, a covered hall of shops. "You can't get this at the supermarket."
That's true, not even in this neighborhood. The local Modern supermarket sells the classic hot and sweet varieties, but that's it.
While the intricacies of Italian butchery can be daunting, there is plenty in the neighborhood for the casual visitor. Three bakeries — Madonia, Terranova and Addeo — vie for prominence.
There was a baroque discussion in the car ride down to Arthur Avenue with my grandparents about who buys his bread where and the relative virtues of each. All I know is this: Terranova makes round loaves, and we stocked up on several.
The area is also full of restaurants, many with gimmicks, like a singing owner at Pasquale Rigoletto or sharing your meal with strangers at long tables at Dominick's. And then, of course, there are the cannolis.
To hear Raguso tell it, my father's student was not the only one to think of using a cannoli to get his way. The classic pastry stuffed with cream was also used to fight City Hall this year.
The neighborhood has long credited much of its foot traffic to the nearby Bronx Zoo, and Raguso says merchants felt the pinch when the zoo stopped its annual Christmas light display in 2008. Then this year, the city council proposed cuts to cultural institutions, including a total of $4.7 million at the zoo and Brooklyn's New York Aquarium, which are both operated by the Wildlife Conservation Society.
"I says, 'This sucks, what else do they want to do to us?'" Raguso explained, recounting his reaction to the budget. I assume, reader, you know already what a man with access to cannolis does when he's in a tight spot: He deploys them. "Arthur Avenue without the zoo is like a cannoli without the cream," he declared to any media who would listen this past June, and promptly sent the city council members a box of empty cannolis.
In the end, the budget actually added $200,000 for the zoo and the aquarium. (City budgets involve several phases; cuts could still be made later.)
The role the cannolis played in saving the zoo's funding? That's anyone's guess. But it's hard to imagine that at least some of the credit doesn't fall to a man who is doubly knighted as both the cannoli king and the cake underboss.
The impulse with a gem like Arthur Avenue is to say, hurry, go before it changes. But there is resilience to the neighborhood.
When I asked my grandmother, Anne, 87, if it seemed different today from how she remembered it when she first went not long after World War II ended, she replied that there used to be vegetable stands on the street. My instinct is that this glacial pace will continue.
So hurry, but look forward to coming back again and again.
If You Go...
ARTHUR AVENUE: Most stores are located along Arthur Avenue and 187th Street in the Belmont section of the Bronx, New York City, near the Bronx Zoo.
Most stores close around 6 p.m.; many are closed on Sundays. Stores include: Addeo bakery, 2372 Hughes Ave. (one block east of Arthur Avenue) Biancardi's, 2350 Arthur Ave. Borgatti's Ravioli & Egg Noodles, 632 E. 187th St. Calandra's Cheese, 2314 Arthur Ave. Gino's Pastry Shop, 580 E. 187th St. Teitel Bros., 2372 Arthur Ave. Madonia Brothers Bakery, 2348 Arthur Ave. Peter's Meat Market, 2344 Arthur Ave. (inside the Arthur Avenue Retail Market) Terranova Bakery, 691 E. 187th St.