April 28, 2013

Arthur Avenue Walking and Tasting Tour With Renée Restivo

Renée Restivo
Photos by New York Scugnizzo
By Giovanni di Napoli

When I heard there was going to be a walking and tasting tour on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx I signed up immediately. I was eager to return to this Southern Italian oasis, and upon learning that our guide was going to be Renée Restivo, cooking instructor and founder of Soul of Sicily*, I knew I couldn’t miss this opportunity. Renée has an amazing knowledge of Sicilian food and culture and a passion for Sicily that few can rival. She was recently featured in the April 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler with a heartwarming article about returning to her ancestral homeland and reuniting with family.

Arthur Avenue styles itself "The Real Little Italy of New York" and, if demographics are the criteria, they may have a point. While both neighborhoods are home to many fantastic old fashioned, family-owned artisan shops, restaurants and cafes, Arthur Avenue (unlike Manhattan's Little Italy) still has a sizable Southern Italian population. This fact alone makes it, in my opinion, more authentic than Manhattan, however, I'm not sure this necessitates the coveted appellation. Historically, Manhattan's Little Italy was never the largest Italian neighborhood, so numbers alone do not decide. If they did, perhaps parts of Staten Island, Brooklyn or Queens would be more deserving of the designation.

I believe calling Arthur Avenue "Little Italy" isn’t necessary. Consider "The Hill" in St. Louis or the "North End" in Boston; what these places are to their respective cities, “Arthur Avenue” is to the Bronx and New York City. Besides, more than one traditional Italian neighborhood in a city can only be a good thing!

Arthur Avenue continues to have a strong Italian presence, with many thriving gourmet and specialty shops. The neighborhood also hosts an annual "Ferragosto" festival, albeit in September, and a Feast in honor of Saint Anthony at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church every June. While popularity for these two festivals continues to grow, Manhattan's San Gennaro Feast is under siege from disgruntled newcomers who would like to see the celebration cut short, if not shutdown altogether. Unreasonable rents are also hurting the remaining shops.
Pianist at Arthur Avenue Retail Market
Our tour began at the Arthur Avenue Retail Market, a bustling indoor bazaar reminiscent of Philadelphia's famous Reading Market, except it's a lot smaller and much more Italian. Built in 1940 by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to house the city's pushcart peddlers, the numerous vendors offer a wide selection of authentic Italian products, including baked goods, fresh produce and garden supplies. They also have tobacconists hand rolling cigars, a bar to have a drink while watching the Bronx Bombers, and a pianist to greet visitors at the front entrance. Fittingly, there is even a café named after the Piazza del Mercato, Naples' famous market square.
Great food and service at Joe's Deli
From the market, our intimate group leisurely made its way up and down busy Arthur Avenue, taking in the many sights and smells. Curious locals would offer helpful suggestions and give their unsolicited opinions on where to visit and who makes the best cheese, bread or salumi. Renée would take us into various shops, introduce us to the shopkeepers, give us a brief history of the business and describe what they offer. Renée's expertise in Sicilian wine was impressive and her lesson was most welcome. She introduced me to the celebrated sweet Malvasia wine from the Aeolian Islands off the coast of northern Sicily.
Pasta demonstration at Borgatti's
The merchants, of course, were happy to have us and we were warmly welcomed. They gave interesting demonstrations on how they make their specialty wares, answered all our questions, and, to our delight, let us try some samples. We had fresh creamy ricotta, crusty rustic breads still warm from the oven, thinly sliced prosciutto and spicy sopressata, fresh mozzarella, scamorza, and, interestingly, a piquant pecorino from Holland. I especially liked the spicy Crotonese cheese coated with hot pepper flakes.
Spicy cheese at Calabria Pork Store
Obviously, this left little room for lunch, so we stopped only for some lite fare and lively conversation, recapping all the wonderful things we discovered. For example, I was happy to learn some culinary traditions I thought lost are still alive. It’s been a long time since I saw capozelle (lamb’s head) available at the butcher’s. I was tempted to buy one, but alas, I don't think my more fussy friends would eat it. Maybe I'll surprise my guests at my next dinner party.
Coal oven and rustic bread at Terranova Bakery
Part of our tour included a brief stop at Our Lady of Mount Carmel and, as always, it was a pleasure to return to this beautiful church. We also passed by Vincent Ciccarone Playground. Opened in 1934, the park honors a local soldier born in the province of Chieti, Abruzzo, who died in WWI.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church
After we said our goodbyes to the tour group, my friends and I took advantage of the nice weather and explored the area some more. We relaxed for a bit beneath the gazebo at D'Auria-Murphy Triangle, a tranquil little park with a giant bust of Cristoforo Colombo. Named after John D'Auria and Henry J. Murphy, two young men from the neighborhood who lost their lives in WWI, the park was the perfect spot to temporarily escape the teeming thoroughfare.
Cosenza's outdoor oyster bar
Rested, we eventually moved on to Palombo's for dessert, a corner bakery with a casual atmosphere and good service. I enjoyed a delicious rum baba with my espresso while my friends savored some gelato. Afterward, we backtracked to some of the stores we visited earlier and finally did some shopping. I picked up a few "essentials" (i.e. friselle and some fresh cavatelli for Sunday dinner) and stocked up on the hard to find nduja. I also purchased a new Napoli scarf to show my team support. Humorously, like the locals who have their favorite spots to shop, we all had different thoughts on where to go to get the best products. Though I must admit, I was happy to return to the other stores.
Dry-curing nduja and sopressata at Calabria Pork Store
My friends and I are grateful to Renée for the wonderful tour and we look forward to her next one.

If you haven’t visited Arthur Avenue before, I highly recommend it. If you value traditional culture and good food, you won't be disappointed.
Statue of Columbus at D'Auria-Murphy Triangle
* Soul of Sicily is a culinary project based in Noto, a town in the Sicilian province of Siracusa.