Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Bronx: Arthur Avenue

As strange as this may sound, my first three visits to The Bronx were all for fitness-related reasons: a Bronx Zoo run; a 5 Borough Bike Ride; and a Merrell Mud Run. My most recent adventure to The Bronx, however, was inspired by a purely pleasurable reason: to eat Italian food.

Most people associate Manhattan's Mulberry Street with Little Italy. There you can certainly experience the few remaining streets of the old Italian immigrant neighborhood, replete in its Italian restaurants, gelato stands, and souvenir vendors, but it feels more like an overcrowded theme park visit. For a real Italian neighborhood adventure with goodies to bring home and cook, then the trek out to Arthur Avenue is well worth it.

My adventure began with a 1.5 hour subway ride, which wound its way through more culturally diverse neighborhoods than the World Showcase at Epcot Center by starting from lower lower Brooklyn [my Italian neighborhood] all the way up to Fordham Road in The Bronx. Unfortunately, one un-Disney like moment involved observing a purse snatching and the victim's perfectly executed efforts at self-defense.  

The colorful walk from Fordham Road to Arthur Avenue makes it glaringly obvious you are not in Brooklyn anymore. On Fordham University's Rose Hill campus, solemn Revival Gothic architecture stands in contrast to the verdant nearby sites of the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden. In a few short walking minutes, though, the Belmont section of The Bronx offers an Italian eating mecca at Arthur Avenue and about 187th Street. 

Your trip could be divided into two separate objectives: noshing and food shopping. If you threw a rock you would hit a number of churches and places to eat. This first visit was more of an experience-through-noshing-and-shopping trip than a sit-down-for-a-four-hour-stuff-yourself-silly-meal one. So, rather than review every place I visited and every item I brought home to cook, I am sharing some snippets of the overall experience: Walking the neighborhood on a beautiful sunny day brought encounters with a few Italian speaking gentlemen, some with cigars, some just with smiles, just as any visit to an Italian village would; standing in line at Casa Della Mozzarella or Borgatti's for fresh pasta, introduced me to well-heeled Italian ladies from all over the five boroughs, New Jersey, and Long Island, who regularly come to Arthur Avenue because they swear the food is so much fresher; and talking to the Calabrians at the Arthur Avenue Retail Market while they ply me with samples of their homemade mozzarella, ricotta, salume, reduced balsamic vinegar, and wine, taught me the virtues of properly storing fresh mozzarella with New York's finest tap water versus that impure 'crap' in the 'burbs. 

The best souvenirs for those who cook come from the numerous stores sprinkled in between restaurants and cafes.  All types of fresh seafood are available [this is a popular location to buy ingredients for the Feast of the Seven Fishes], and you can even indulge that craving for fresh oysters served at a stand-up sidewalk counter outside the store!  

The markets sell giant cans of San Marzano tomatoes and arborio rice in large bags at incredibly low prices.  [See photos above]

The bakeries display an unbelievable array of every type of Italian cookie, including my favorite pignoli cookies and biscotti, in addition to the freshly baked bread with aromas guaranteed to revisit you in your dreams. Some of the fresh produce is even sold straight from the van! 

Bring a cooler, cash, and an appetite. Arthur Avenue will supply the rest.