Look to the Bronx for the Little Italy Tourists Don’t Know About
The Bronx has its share of fabulous attractions: Yankee Stadium, the Bronx Zoo, and the New York Botanical Garden, to name a few. It also has, to some local chagrin, the Joker stairs. There’s another draw, though, that’s hallowed by many but perhaps unfamiliar to those who’ve never ventured to New York City’s northernmost borough: the Bronx’s very own Little Italy.
Technically named Belmont, the neighborhood is also known colloquially as “Arthur Avenue,” which is the street that’s home to a belt of red-sauce restaurants and family-run businesses, several of which date back about 100 years. Many Italian immigrants settled in the area around the early part of the 20th century, and residents have become more diverse in the decades since. Today, the Bronx’s Little Italy is populated by several ethnic communities -- Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Albanian are among the most prominent. And the Italian roots remain, because of the shops and eateries that continue to thrive.
Strolling down Arthur Avenue and the intersecting East 187th Street is a bit like time traveling. You’re transported to an era when merchants were called “merchants” and they made conversation with weekly customers, when patrons picked up their meats, mozzarella, and bread from dedicated shops. To the faithful, Arthur Avenue is a preserved piece of Old New York; to those who don’t know better, it’s a nameless part of a borough they can’t be bothered to visit.
“It always surprises me both how many people know of Arthur Avenue and how many people still don’t,” says Frank Franz, 66, treasurer and member of the executive board of the Belmont Business Improvement District. “I’ll be in other parts of the country and hear people talking about Arthur Avenue. And yet, there’s people right in the Bronx that don’t even know what’s going on up here.”
See what’s going on in NYC’s northernmost Little Italy
Getting to Arthur Avenue is, of course, simplest via transportation app. Ask your driver to drop you at the corner of Arthur and East 187th, and you’ll be right by Full Moon Pizza, where the slices are large enough to live up to the name. By subway, you’ll have to take the 4, B, or D trains to Fordham Road, and then either ride the Bx12 bus east, or walk down the thoroughfare that is Fordham Road; you could also take the 2 or 5 trains over to Pelham Parkway and then head west, on the Bx12 or on foot. If you prefer Metro-North, commute to the Fordham stop, then walk east, past Fordham University, and hook a right on Arthur Avenue.
Once you’re in Little Italy, you’ll notice a few differences from its Manhattan counterpart. There really aren’t any sidewalk maître d's corralling passersby into restaurants (at least not in the daytime); novelty license plates and Godfather-referencing T-shirts are present but scarce; and there’s no Christmas ornament superstore spoiling the ambiance.
What you will spot is an array of bakeries and pastry shops, a couple of storefronts selling coffee beans and trinkets fit for Nonna’s display case, and a handful of butcher shops hoping to lure in anyone with a taste for tripe or lamb leg.
Little Italy in the Bronx is about destination shopping
Now, Manhattan’s Little Italy isn’t simply the tourist trap that it’s often dismissed as -- the gift-shop-plagued neighborhood still retains some of its charm, character, and longtime locals -- but there’s no denying that it’s usually mobbed by out-of-towners who also have Times Square on their itinerary. By contrast, Arthur Avenue has the -- come si dice -- air of a more neighborhoody neighborhood. Don’t be mistaken: Arthur Avenue definitely attracts its own share of tourists. But there’s a sense that many of the people patrolling the sidewalks and chit-chatting at the cash registers are right at home.
To hear businessowners tell it, Arthur Avenue depends on a network of regulars from all over the tri-state area, including people who used to live in the neighborhood back when its makeup was more Italian, and who still have a fondness for all the fresh ingredients and throwback service. And that abundance of fresh products is another key distinction between NYC’s two versions of Little Italy: Manhattan’s is more about destination dining, while the Bronx’s is more about destination shopping.
Where to shop like a longtime Little Italy local
Start out with some produce at the Arthur Avenue Retail Market. The tomatoes are flush red and the basil’s fragrant -- both are worth carrying back home with you. If you’d like to do as much shopping as you can under one roof, stop at Peter’s Meat Market (Arthur Avenue’s “Favorite ‘Meating’ Place,” according to the signage) and choose your cut. The braciole and spirals of sausage are especially appetizing, even uncooked. For a quick breather, post up at the Bronx Beer Hall, located in the middle of the Market, and sip on some craft beer from New York State.
Stock up on authentic pasta at Borgatti’s Ravioli & Egg Noodles, over on East 187th Street, between Hughes and Belmont avenues. Joan Borgatti, 55, owns and operates the business with her husband Chris, whose grandparents originally opened the shop more than 80 years ago.
“In 1935, 100 ravioli were $1 a box -- now, they’re $14.75,” Joan says after catching up with a regular. “Not bad.” Borgatti’s ravioli is made fresh every day, comes in different sizes (small and large), and is available in a number of styles, including pumpkin and ricotta, spinach and ricotta, and meat and spinach. Joan, who’s worked at the store for 29 years, suggests that you start simple, with the large cheese. The ravioli’s impossibly soft and the filling’s creamy; she describes it with one word: “Classic.”
Walking back up 187th toward Arthur, pop into Casa Della Mozzarella for -- how’d you guess? -- some of the freshest mozzarella available in NYC. Just make sure you’re traveling light: Space on the customer side of the counter is so limited that you might have to shimmy to get to the cashier. Those more partial to Parmigiano-Reggiano should visit Teitel Brothers, a grocery store on Arthur Avenue that’s been in the neighborhood (and the same family) for 105 years. Their servings of the aged cheese are about as sharp as the blade used to shave ‘em off. While there, you’ll have your pick of different olive oils (filtered and unfiltered), and plenty of other packaged goods, stacked practically to the ceiling.
Half a block down from Teitel, treat yourself to some quick oysters and clams -- they serve them on the sidewalk outside Cosenza’s Fish Market, another neighborhood fixture that’s been around for just over a century. Once you’re done slurping, head inside to net some heartier seafood. Fresh squid and octopus, imported dorado, sardines, and branzino -- it’s all waiting on ice.
Sample slices of pizza and old-world nostalgia along Arthur Avenue
Now that you’ve shopped up an appetite, it’s time to fill up with a warm meal. There are plenty of restaurants to choose from around Little Italy’s main drag, but I recommend two in particular: Tra Di Noi, on East 187th, and Zero Otto Nove, on Arthur Avenue proper.
Tra Di Noi delivers exactly what you expect from a cozy Italian eatery: red-and-white checkered tablecloths, toasty atmosphere, gnocchi that doesn’t sit too heavy, and tomato-based sauce that recalls Chef Boyardee in the most satisfying way possible. At Zero Otto Nove, you’ll find more than a little schtick (the hallway’s low ceiling and distressed walls are meant to evoke an imagined life in Italy) and a variety of gourmet pizzas. Its menu also includes pasta, meat, and seafood dishes, but you should take advantage of the oven that sits in the corner of the main dining room.
“You won’t see a block in the city of New York with as many businesses that have withstood the test of time for 100 years, being owned by the same families.”
Odds are, your server at Zero Otto Nove will suggest the Cirilo pie. Heed their advice: Its combination of mushrooms, cream of truffle, butternut squash puree, and fresh mozzarella tastes earthy yet refined. The flavor’s definitely truffle-forward, but notes of butternut squash come through nicely, and the cheese might be the most elastic you’ll ever bite into. Savor the Cirilo and its top-notch crust -- doughy even when it’s charred -- and don’t pay much mind to the dining-room wall that’s painted to look like a pathway in a small Italian village.
Have one last taste of la dolce vita by way of the Bronx
A few doors down from Cosenza’s, Peter Madonia, the 66-year-old co-owner of Madonia Bakery and chairman of the Belmont BID, seems baffled that the bakery’s cannoli technique is such a point of fascination. They fill each shell to order, and Madonia and insists they do it that way for a very simple reason: they would get soggy otherwise. “I’m glad nobody else does it,” he says. “Eat a cannoli that’s been sitting in the showcase all day, and then eat one that’s filled fresh. You tell me.” Founded by Peter’s grandfather in 1918, Madonia Bakery also serves freshly baked bread (the black olive bread is a signature item) and an impressive range of biscotti, all piled up neatly behind glass.
Right next door is yet another family-owned business that dates way back: Biancardi’s, a butcher shop that moved into Arthur Avenue in the 1930s, according to co-owner and third-generation butcher Sal Biancardi. “You won’t see a block in the city of New York with as many businesses that have withstood the test of time for 100 years, being owned by the same families,” Biancardi says from behind the counter.
Echoing several other store owners in the area, Biancardi says that most of his customers come from well beyond the Bronx. People travel from Long Island, Westchester, New Jersey, and Connecticut for the veal shoulder that rests in the window, the sausages and hunks of prosciutto that dangle from the ceiling, the steaks and turkey roasts that sit in the display case. But they’re really traveling for a certain kind of service -- a certain sense of community -- that you can’t find too many other places. For those who know about Arthur Avenue, it’s worth the trip; for those who once lived nearby but have since moved away, it’s worth coming back to.
Just as my conversation with Biancardi is wrapping up, a woman walks over to us. “I came to his father’s original store down there,” she says, pointing in the direction of the shop’s earlier location, down the block, “when I was in my mom’s stomach, 50 years ago.”
Biancardi just smiles, nods, and says, “There you go.”
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