When I was a kid, my parents would pile us all into the station wagon a few times a year and drive 20 minutes south to the Bronx, to the Jewish enclave around Lydig Avenue. That’s where I first tasted falafel, and where every trip would end with the most delicious treat imaginable: A black-and-white cookie.
I had no idea that if we continued a bit further into the borough, just to the other side of the Bronx Zoo and Botanical Garden, we’d reach an equally rich ethnic enclave: Arthur Avenue, in the Belmont section, New York City’s other Little Italy. I’ll bet it’s no coincidence that Manhattan’s more famous Jewish neighborhood, the Lower East Side, is also adjacent to its more famous Little Italy. As my Italian-American husband and I often note, in many ways Jews and Italians are practically interchangeable. Naturally, we settled near each other repeatedly.
Once I hit adulthood—and especially once I married Stephen—the quest for authentic Italian food led me to Arthur Avenue. We visited a handful of times and wandered the streets wondering which restaurant offered the most tender meatballs, which bakery had the best bread, but often left underwhelmed. I suspected we weren’t doing it right. And then I met Danielle Oteri.
Danielle grew up with the foods of Arthur Avenue. Her family owned the butcher shop at number 2374, where one of Stephen’s favorite films, 1955’s Marty, was filmed—Ernest Borgnine played a butcher, and won an Oscar for it. (They sold the shop in the 80s, but Danielle reports that Vincent’s Meat Market, as it’s now called, still looks much the same.) As the founder of a company called Culinary Ancestry, dedicated to helping Italian-Americans preserve their families’ food traditions, she loves being up to her eyeballs in red sauce recipes. Earlier this year she and her fiancé, Christian Galliani (another Italian-American native New Yorker), teamed up to write a guidebook to her old neighborhood. It’s called The Insider’s Guide to Little Italy.
Stephen, Harry, and I headed up to the Botanical Garden recently, and brought the e-version of the guide on my phone to use afterwards. And wonder of wonders, it was fantastico.
At Addeo’s bakery, we took Danielle’s advice and picked up a ring of lard bread, flecked with black pepper and chunks of chewy pork.
At the Calabria Pork Store, we marveled at the stalactites of salume hanging from the ceiling. That’s Stephen chatting with the owner in the picture at the top.
At the Arthur Avenue Retail Market, an indoor food bazaar (and prototypical supermarket) we strolled from booth to booth, eyeing the butcher’s offerings, the deli counter, the produce—and to Harry’s delight, the array of cookies and candies imported from Italy. Thanks to Danielle’s insider tip, we knew where to find the restroom, hidden up the stairs at the back.
At Teitel Brothers (a Jewish name! and there’s a tilework Star of David at the entrance) we fought the crowds just to peek inside the store, jam-packed with imported cheeses, sausages, olives, and dry goods. And people. Lots and lots of people. I will be back, just not on a weekend.
At Borgatti’s Ravioli, Stephen picked up a box of frozen cheese-filled dumplings, perfect for Little Gram’s Sauce.
And finally, for dinner, we stopped at Zero Otto Nove, which isn’t exactly old-school but Danielle praised it so highly we couldn’t resist. Pizza from the wood-fired oven, topped with nothing but creamy mozz and black olives, was much more than Harry could eat in one sitting. Stephen’s Pollo Capriccioso, a thick, juicy, perfectly-fried cutlet topped with pesto, fresh mozzarella, and chopped tomatoes, was Chicken Parm for people who think the chicken should star, not ladlesful of sauce and gloppy cheese. And my pasta—oh my, that pasta—was ruffly mafalde tossed with chick peas and crisp bits of pancetta, held together with a light sauce of Pecorino cheese, showered with crunchy toasted breadcrumbs.
For dessert, we ordered tartufo—a ball of gelato with a core of almond slices and maraschino cherries, all hidden inside a coating of thick chocolate. Y’know, for Harry.
He we loved it.
Thanks to Danielle and Christian’s Insider’s Guide to Little Italy, we experienced Arthur Avenue as if we’d been visiting all our lives. If you’ve ever been daunted by the prospect of navigating the area on your own, you need this book. If you’ve got relatives who grew up in Belmont, they need this book, even if they now live on the other side of the world. Especially then—just picture their faces when they unwrap the best Christmas present ever. It’s page after page of tips, pictures, personal recommendations, and memories.
If only Jewish Lydig Avenue still existed, maybe I’d write my own guidebook…