Arthur Avenue

New York Times

Arthur Avenue in the Bronx cultivates the image of ”Cucina Paradiso,” complete with a booming soundtrack by Dean Martin at his sappiest. It would be easy to write the neighborhood off as a culinary theme park, a Neapolitan Epcot Center staffed by stock characters. There’s the vegetable vendor in the ”Arthur Avenue since 1936” jacket; the cheese and salami sellers who cannot let a passer-by pass by without insisting, ”Taste this!”; the grandmas in flowered aprons watching over their displays of basil and eggplant under boughs of hot peppers hung up to dry.

There’s enough sweet abbondanza to choke a hardened Manhattanite.

But merchants in this gritty Little Italy say it is thriving while the better-known one downtown has been suffering. And that’s because Arthur Avenue has never catered to fickle tourists, but to passionately loyal shoppers looking for mozzarella so fresh it oozes, for the supplest veal, for fettuccine cut to order, for sausages in a dozen variations. A few sleepy blocks around the intersection of Arthur Avenue and East 187th Street support three butchers, two fishmongers, two stores devoted to cheese, two dedicated sausage makers, a fresh pasta shop, a coffee roaster, a well-stocked wine store, myriad delis and groceries and eight bakeries — four for bread, four for pastries.

At a time when the City Council speaker, Gifford Miller, is proposing creating a Disneyfied market at the World Trade Center site to rival Pike Place in Seattle, it’s hard not to look at Arthur Avenue and see an even better model. It’s Citarella on steroids, Zabar’s on Xanax — it has everything, but the mood is amazingly mellow.

Arthur Avenue does attract its share of tourists, many from the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden, which were built by the immigrants who settled these streets in the Belmont section and which insulate them from rougher areas nearby. But the neighborhood depends on suburbanites who grew up there, or whose parents or grandparents did. They regularly make their way back, not just because the shops carry foods unavailable at even the best supermarket in Westchester or Long Island, but also because you can’t speak Italian at Wegman’s.

Unlike Little Italy in Manhattan, which has only a baby handful of shops selling pasta and cheese, Arthur Avenue has not ceded most of its turf to restaurateurs. There are far better reasons to go there than to face down huge portions of mediocre pasta in a red-checked ambience, as I did at one of the few restaurants open at peak vacation time last week.

Even though three new places — Aniello’s Pizzeria, the Arthur Avenue Cafe and the Omaha Steakhouse — have opened in the last few months, the neighborhood is still more fascinating for its ingredients than for its cooking.

While Arthur Avenue made its reputation on shops that have been in the same family for three and four generations, it has somehow mastered the art of celebrating tradition while keeping up with the trends. Madonia Brothers bakes bread flavored with pesto and with jalapeños and cheese, as well as the classics. Mike’s Deli, its owner says, sells the kind of panini you would find at a truck stop on the autostrada in Italy, while the cafe he also owns serves Americanized quesadillas and crab cakes. Patrons drink espresso standing up, as they would in Rome, but some bakeries also do a noisy business in iced cappuccino, a concoction that would be considered a mortal sin in the old country.

The neighborhood even has a Web site:

If there were any doubt that Arthur Avenue is about clinging to Old World values in a shrink-wrap culture, the Mason jars stacked to the awning on the sidewalk at the Queler True Value hardware store would vanquish it. So would the crates of plum tomatoes and the pots big enough to boil a litter of suckling pigs on display in the covered Retail Market. This is prime canning season, and Arthur Avenue aficionados take it very seriously.

No matter that they could buy San Marzano tomatoes from Italy in huge cans or small at any of a dozen shops. In this quiet neighborhood, ritual is the real nourishment. Every transaction is personalized. Ask for mozzarella at the Casa Della Mozzarella and the quiz begins: Fresh or smoked? Small, medium or large? Salted or unsalted? If you want cannoli at Egidio’s Pastry, you have to specify large or small, vanilla or chocolate, with powdered sugar or plain. Arthur Avenue is not for the indecisive.

Very little is packaged for grab-and-go shopping. At Teitel Brothers, founded in 1915, patrons line up for olives, nuts and dried beans to be weighed out and Parmigiano-Reggiano cut to order. Terranova’s Bakery sells huge loaves of durable bread sliced and in bags, but the clerk will go to the back to get one still warm from the oven if you ask for it whole. At Calandra’s Cheese, two people can make up a very long line: the counterman is all attention as he consults and then all concentration as he cuts or weighs every cheese to specification.

But no shop compares with Borgatti’s, a small tiled oasis where a curtain separates the kitchen from the showroom and ancient signs advise ”this corner for ravioli.” When I asked what kind of fresh pasta was available, the grandmotherly clerk pulled out a tattered chunk of cardboard painted with yellow stripes in increasing widths.

I pointed to No. 2. She went to a pile of sheets of fresh pasta, weighed out a pound, then carried it across the room and ran it through a hand-cranked cutter to produce fettuccine-size strands. She then mounded them onto a sheet of white paper, dusted them with a scoop of cornmeal from a barrel on the counter, tossed them until they were coated and finally folded them into a tidy little package before taking my $1.60.

When I cooked the noodles the next day, they were still pliable, not at all like the crackling strands of indeterminate age sold in every other food shop in this city. And they tasted like the essence of Italy, with that firm texture and eggy flavor that makes sauce almost superfluous.

CALABRIA PORK STORE was an even more transporting experience. Walking into the narrow shop was like wandering into a culatello cellar in Parma. Every inch of the ceiling was hung with dry sausages and bacon, and the air had that peculiar, almost gamy scent of cured pork.

A counterman who dropped his newspaper and jumped up to serve me said that every piece — hot, superhot, fennel, sweet or garlic and wine — was made on the premises, as it has been since the 1930’s. The shop, he said, had been in business so long that the Health Department did not object to the meats hanging overhead. ”We’re grandfathered in,” he said.

I had to take his word for it, because the white-haired owner I met later would speak only Italian.

There was no communication barrier at Mike’s Deli. The owner, David Greco, first forced a chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano on me, then asked a clerk to get me a glass of homemade sweet red wine, then had another one lay out a generous taste of prosciutto, sausage, tomatoes and mozzarella and drizzle it with his own brand of balsamic vinegar. His philosophy, he said, was that if you give samples to 15 people, one will buy a sandwich (and, judging by the roasted vegetable one I later tried, be amply rewarded — it was big enough for two).

The one weakness at Arthur Avenue is the produce, sold primarily in the covered market. The selection is limited, compared with the range of foods available in other shops, and the quality is relatively thin. Anyone accustomed to Greenmarket tomatoes will not go home with a case of these plums. Gorgeous fruits and vegetables are the one thing suburban shoppers can find closer to home, and the demand for apples is naturally not as strong as for olives.

It’s ironic that the market, opened by Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia in 1940 to get the fruit and the vendors off the street, has wound up constricting one of the most important elements of Italian cooking.

Arthur Avenue does value patrons with familiar faces, though. When I bought figs one afternoon after picking up prosciutto at Mike’s, the vendor recognized me with my notebook and insisted on assembling a fresh basket of figs with ”good fruit all the way to the bottom.” Even if I had taken a regular basket, I could afford to throw away part: the fruit was about half the price of what my very cheap market in Manhattan charges.

Deals are everywhere. De Cecco dried pasta, which Manhattan stores sell for $2, is usually $1.39; a pound of perfect veal I bought at Biancardi’s cost $12; Terranova’s huge loaf of wonderful bread was all of $1.75. Still, the quality is the real attraction. And there is something irresistible about buying mozzarella you have seen being made, that is still warm when it’s wrapped (in paper, not plastic).

Most food shops have remained in the founding family, although Albanians are taking over some restaurants. ”You walk into Biancardi’s, and there’s a Biancardi there,” said Salvatore Biancardi, who runs his eponymous butcher shop. ”You walk into Madonia’s and there’s a Madonia there. There are two Cosenzas and three Randazzos” in the fish stores.

Many merchants say that their business suffered very little or not at all after Sept. 11. Some, like Rosa Paciullo of Tino’s Deli, say their sales rose because patrons who were afraid to go into Manhattan came to them instead. ”Restaurants up here were jammed,” Mr. Biancardi said.

Mr. Greco, who took over Mike’s Deli from his father 10 years ago, is an exception. He said that his catering and gift-basket business had lost customers in Manhattan, particularly in the financial district.

WHAT has kept Arthur Avenue stable, Mr. Biancardi said, is that ”merchants did not give in to the temptation to move to the suburbs to follow their customers.” Its shops have readily adapted to what Mr. Greco describes as ”infusions” of new settlers. Puerto Ricans have joined immigrants from Albania and Mexico. If you buy mozzarella or bread, in fact, it will most likely have been made by a Mexican. And Don Panchito is now open in the middle of all the Italian shops, selling Mexican ingredients at very good prices.

Arthur Avenue’s business is so steady that Biancardi’s, just doors away from two other meat markets, has 14 butchers working on the display floor and more in the basement cutting up veal calves and baby lamb raised on upstate farms specifically for the store. The bakeries turn out loaves all through the day. Both Cosenza’s and Randazzo’s keep clam and oyster shuckers busy at raw bars set up on the sidewalk.

The mystery is how so many stores selling the same foods can do so well. Ms. Paciullo explained it simply: ”I got my butcher. Everybody’s got their butcher.” The great pleasure is going from store to store to find the specialty of the house. Biancardi’s does a huge business in lamb; Peter’s looks to have a veal crowd. You go to Casa Della Mozzarella for the namesake cheese and to Calandra’s for the basket cheese, named for the plastic mold in which it is made.

Exploring Arthur Avenue ultimately brings home how much Manhattan has changed for cooks in the last 10 years as many specialty markets have either evolved into one-stop emporiums or been replaced by them, and as many butchers and fishmongers have simply faded away.

Being able to buy everything — branzino, pasta, mascarpone — at a sprawling store like Citarella has made life easier. But foraging on Arthur Avenue still feels like New York’s own Great Adventure.