Day Tripping / Little Italy of the Bronx, a trip to Arthur Avenue
Editor’s Note: This is the start of a summer-long series of day trips the staff of Hearst Connecticut Media will be taking and sharing their first-hand accounts of. To find trips from last year’s installment of the series visit our website and type in “Day Tripping” into the search bar. This first trip of 2018 is to New York’s Arthur Avenue.
Through a dreary door and up a flight of stairs in an old brick apartment building is Philip Marino’s Arthur Avenue office. It’s situated dead center in the Little Italy of the Bronx on a block that boasts culinary institutions like Full Moon Pizza, open since 1976, and Teitel Brothers Grocery, open since 1915.
If you weren’t looking for Marino, the honking New York City horns and smells of cured meats and fresh fish, and the busy sidewalks of the bustling Bronx district would make his office easy to miss.
“This place is unique. You have a couple block area and you’ll have three butcher shops and two bakeries right next to each other. There are about eight businesses that have been here for more than 100 years,” Marino said, on a recent Friday, to me and my photographer, Humberto J. Rocha. We had come to explore the Belmont section of the Bronx’s Little Italy and, mainly, to eat.
Marino is the executive director of the Belmont Business Improvement District (the BID), an organization of business owners working to promote and improve the neighborhood in which Little Italy is located. It comprises a small area centered around the intersection of 187th Street and its main thoroughfare, Arthur Avenue, stretching out in either direction for a few blocks.
It’s a short walk to the Bronx Zoo, the New York Botanical Garden, East Fordham Road, and the iron gates of Fordham University’s campus. According to Marino, many of the Jesuit university’s upperclassmen call Arthur Avenue and other Little Italy streets home once they’ve moved off campus.
Arthur Avenue, Bronx, NY
Maroon Fordham shirts are a common sight in the area during the day, as are dining families, come to visit their sons and daughters, in the neighborhoods many well-known restaurants. On weekend nights, students head to Mugz’s Bar, an Arthur Avenue dive whose unsightly brick facade and dingy red awning signal the collegiate bacchanalia that transpires nightly inside.
“It’s a different neighborhood between night and day,” said Marino.
But it is also a bonafide hub of Italian cooking in a city known for its Italian food and is, depending on who you ask, the preeminent Little Italy of New York City. Marino, a large man, terse but not unkind, was more than happy to direct us, in his smoker’s rasp and thick New York accent, to the restaurants and shops where we should stop that day.
The first was Teitel Brothers, whose Depression-era Star of David mosaic outside the front door is an Arthur Avenue landmark.
Jacob and Morris Teitel were Jewish Austrian immigrants who came to America in 1912 and, tailors by trade, first worked downtown in the Garment District. Three years later, around the same time a wave of Italian immigrants moved to the area to work stonemason and landscaping jobs at the zoo, the Botanical Garden and the Jerome Park Reservoir, Jacob and Morris moved to what was quickly becoming Little Italy.
“They spoke Yiddish, they hardly spoke English,” said Gil Teitel, Jacob’s son who has helped run the business for 59 years. The brothers learned Italian before they did English and ran a thriving neighborhood grocery, even through the 1970s and 1980s when Little Italy, like much of the rest of the Bronx, faced steep economic decline.
Jacob lived for a time with his family, including Gil, above the store on the corner of E 186th Street.
“When the store got busy, my father would bang on the steam pipe and we’d come down to help behind the counter,” remembered Teitel, standing behind the same counter. At this point, Teitel has mostly ceded control of the business to his two sons and their childhood friend. But Gil remains a stalwart figure in the Arthur Avenue shop.
Around the corner, on 187th Street, across from the ornate Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, is Borgatti’s Ravioli and Egg Noodles, opened by Chris Borgatti’s Napolese grandparents, Lindo and Maria, in 1935.
“Grandma had some recipes,” Borgatti offered as explanation for the opening of the shop, emerging from the back of the small space where he and his staff were hand making ravioli and pasta.
Since he was 18, in 1976, Borgatti has helped run the store, and has watched the neighborhood evolve.
“What was once predominantly Italian has now changed,” Borgatti said.
There are vibrant Albanian, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Mexican and African-American communities that have long since moved to Belmont. And though the neighborhood hasn’t been gentrified in the way so many other outer-borough locales have, the impact of college students and visitors from outside of Belmont (43 percent of visitors come from more than 20 miles away, according to BID statistics) is evident in some of Little Italy’s newer establishments.
The Bronx Beer Hall, whose taps pour New York craft beer, is the kind of place that would look and feel at home in Williamsburg. But the beer hall, opened in 2013, is situated in the middle of the Arthur Avenue Retail Market, an indoor bazaar built in 1940, in order to get the neighborhood’s many pushcart vendors of the street. It’s home to more than a dozen vendors, including Liberatore’s Garden, a florist that’s been around since the inception of the market, La Casa Grande Cigars, where artisans hand roll stogies, and Mike’s Deli, which has been on Arthur Avenue since 1922.
It was a slow, hot afternoon and there wasn’t much foot traffic. As we walked into the market and past the Beer Hall, which has a smattering of tables where food is served, we were greeted by the bartender Carla Santana, attempting to lure passersby into some of the bar’s empty stools.
Santana was born in the Bronx and spent six years of her childhood in the Dominican Republic before moving back. She’s worked at the Beer Hall since 2013 and was happy to entertain the few guests she had on this day. With a young couple down the bar, Santana was talking about Kanye West’s recent Twitter rant, President Donald Trump and their reactions to his election. Santana would break to chat up other potential customers or speak on her favorite beers on draft at the moment.
She was also eager to hype up the many events the Beer Hall hosts. There are trivia nights, happy hours, “judgment-free karaoke, and vinyl dance parties, at which the tables are pushed aside, funk records are played and patrons are encouraged to boogie.
“It’s magical,” Santana said, of the dance party vibe. “Everyone turns into unicorns.”
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