An Old New World: Arthur Avenue’s Little Italy

When I left Italy in March, I’ll confess it wasn’t so much a graceful departure as a beeline to escape. I was tired of fighting bureaucracy in the Living Museum, missed the bustle of a proper city, and had eaten so much cured meat that my sweat stank with lactic fermentation. Italophiles may weep, but I’ll say it anyway—I was totally over Italy and ready to abandon la dolce vita forever.

But like a mosquito to bare arms, I couldn’t stay away for long. Soon, I’d gotten my fix of cilantro and tacos, and my kilo-block of parmesan had run out. Luckily, this is New York and you can get anything here—for a price—so I began discreetly scouting for new dealers.

They said Arthur Avenue was where I wanted to go. It seems that while the Little Italy of downtown Manhattan has long been overrun by tourists and Armenian restauranteurs masquerading as Italians, this little stretch of the Bronx still retains small town character and old men leisurely watching football.

Transportation to Arthur Avenue consists of taking the B/D train to Fordham, a solid 90-minute trek from Brooklyn. The surrounding neighborhood isn’t the greatest, but during the day, I didn’t feel uncomfortable at any point. After you leave the station, walk about seven blocks to the east along 186th St, then one block south on 3rd Ave, and another four blocks east on 187th St until you reach Arthur Ave. The Italian community is centered around this intersection, radiating 3-4 blocks in each direction.

Immediately, American influences bleed into traditional Italian settings in amusing ways. Cheese shops and bakeries are interspersed with a smattering of Hispanic bodegas and sushi joints. A bust of Julius Caesar sits side by side with a framed photo of Obama. Catholic churches dot every corner, but rather than exhibiting fancy Baroque adornments, they retain the austere lines of a Protestant church.

Colorful, kitschy wall decorations abound, but my personal favorite is the rear wall of Borgatti’s Ravioli and Egg Noodles. Borgatti’s is a third-generation fresh pasta shop that has been operating since 1935. Take a peek inside for elastic spools of spinach or squid ink pasta, hand-cut lasagna sheets, and boxes of ravioli and manicotti. Then, inspect the collection of family photos in the back. Where else will you see a Japanese certificate of appreciation hanging next to an Albanian poster of Mother Teresa?

Naturally, the food is the real reason to trek here. The fermented fragrance of hanging prosciutto. Rainbow buckets of brine-soaked olives. Intricately layered sfogliatelle and hearty wheels of focaccia. In many ways, the selection of goods is more diverse than what I might find in Bra (my old town in N. Italy) because retailers immigrated from all over Italy. Definitely check out the nduja sausage at the Calabria Pork Store for a spicy taste of Italy’s southern toe. Many of the products are imported, but it’s easy to find fresh cheeses (ricotta, mozzarella) that are done on-premises. Produce, organ meats, and hand-rolled cigars can be found in the main Arthur Ave market at 186th St. Casa della Mozzarella is well-known for having excellent mozzarella (duh), but I was also impressed by the selection at Calandra’s Cheese. As he hands you a bouncy mozzarella ball, Diego patiently fields your questions and indulges your broken Italian as you excitedly gesticulate and explain that you recently moved from Italy. Also, there’s a diverse array of free samples, which encourages a dangerous flirtation with more cheese purchases. I mean, if this cheese is supposed to be aged, it can’t go bad, right?

Did I mention that the prices are incredibly cheap? I picked up a small basket of fresh figs for $1.75, and a loaf of lard bread for $4 at Addeo & Sons Bakery. If you’ve never tried lard bread before, it is dough fluffed with pork fat and studded with additional bits of lard that crisp up while baking, an unbeatable combo of porcine candy and bread. I wanted to top it with more salami and make sandwiches, but by that time, the bread had disappeared.

When your arms are loaded with all the bags you can carry and you’re ready for afternoon siesta, make one last stop at Cosenza’s Fish Market for some sidewalk oysters. Yes, I was somewhat skeptical at first too, but the oysters are kept on ice and turnover is rapid. For $1-2 each (a steal for NYC!), you can get a plate of oysters expertly shucked for you, and doctor them with lemon wedge and 6-8 different hot sauces. Cosenza’s, you know the way to a foodie girl’s heart. If you have a cooler or are feeling lucky, go ahead and load up on fresh fish, pulpo (octopus), and seppia (squid) from their main seafood counter.

It’s looking less and less likely that I’ll ever make it to the NYC Eataly. Who needs large corporate food malls anyway?

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