To the mafiosos mingling on almost every street corner of the Bronx’s Arthur Avenue, there’s no Little Italy in Manhattan. We dare you to argue otherwise. Those who reside in the real Little Italy are fiercely protective of it. As its nickname suggests, the neighborhood has roots in the nonnas and nonnos of old. And because a conversation about almost anything in this Little Italy tends to revert to the stomach, a visit to Arthur Avenue almost always ends up being about the food.
From the moment I arrive on Arthur Avenue, I’m attacked on all fronts by Italian pride. Many of the stores along the boulevard are decorated in the colors of the nation’s flag (red, green and white), and it smells of doughy pasta and meaty sauces. It’s also immediately clear that family ties run deep here. Within minutes of entering Addeo & Sons Bakery, I meet an Addeo who is a culinary school trained heir to the old school Italian baking throne renowned for its fresh, airy bread.
A quick chat with Mr. Addeo confirms my suspicion: Arthur Avenue is indeed a place where immigrant culture is intermixed with the newness of the city. A constant cultural exchange is what makes the place so special. Understanding this, Mr. Addeo appreciates the role that heritage plays in the future. So while the recipes used at Addeo & Sons are distinctly Italian, the water (and thus the finished leavened products) are distinctly New York. Just like Mr. Addeo himself, the breads baked at Addeo & Sons are the result of a long line of tradition, spiked with a dash of New York.
Addeo & Sons isn’t the only shop that follows this old-meets-new model. As I step foot into the cavernous Calabria Pork Store just around the corner, I can feel the meat sweats rising from deep within my pores. Thousands of artisanal swine based products beckon me from the ceiling. The physical space embraces me as I imagine a spirited Italian grandmother would. Eyes closed, I transport myself from the Bronx to Calabria. It is only upon hearing the butcher speak in his native Spanish tongue from behind the counter that I realize I am still in New York. In Italy, only a native son would run such a sausage shop, but on Arthur Ave, a melting pot exception is made.
A few doors down, the Jewish run Teitel Brothers is a mecca of not-so-kosher goods. Jewish cuisine isn’t known for its antipasti, but Teitel Brothers abuts all cultural preconceptions. The cheeses, meats and fishes sold within the cramped space rival those from any Italian shop. True to Arthur Avenue form, Teitel himself still runs the place, but with the help of neighborhood newbies hailing from Central and South America.
Neither fully Italian nor fully American, the Bronx’s Little Italy is a mesmerizing hybrid. While maneuvering in and out of the specialty shops of a style more common in Europe than in the U.S., you might just mistake the neighborhood for a small town on the salt-brined island of Sicily or within Tuscany’s undulating vineyards. But the illusion won’t last. Within minutes, you’re likely to hear one of the many other languages other than Italian spoken in New York City.
Photos by Sarita Dan