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.
Storefront statue of the heroic Skanderbeg
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.

April 5, 2013

Learning Sicilian at the Italian American Museum

Professor Cipolla Presents His New Book
(L-R) Professor Gaetano Cipolla and Dr. Joseph Scelsa
(Photos by New York Scugnizzo)
By Giovanni di Napoli

Recently, I had the privilege of attending Professor Gaetano Cipolla's book presentation at the Italian American Museum (155 Mulberry St.), where the esteemed author, educator and president of Arba Sicula spoke at length to a packed audience about his new book, Learn Sicilian/'Mparamu lu sicilianu: A Comprehensive, Interactive Course (Legas 2013). 

Professor Cipolla touched on many interesting facts about the Sicilian language, including how it developed earlier than the other regional languages of Italy (e.g. Tuscan), easily dispelling the popular misconception that Sicilian is a corruption of Italian. He gave us a brief history of the language, beginning with the Court of Holy Roman Emperor Federico II (Frederick II) and the Sicilian School of poetry up until the present.

I was aware of the social and political suppression of Sicilian, so I was shocked to learn that the Sicilian Assembly recently passed a law to teach the language in public schools. Unfortunately, I was not surprised that the law has not yet been implemented. Apparently, Sicilian is learned at home among family and friends, while "Italian" (i.e. Florentine) is taught in classrooms. I was also saddened to hear that Sicilians will speak first in Italian to strangers, even other Sicilians, because they do not want to appear uneducated.

This reminded me of an exchange I once had with a waitress at a Sicilian restaurant in Brooklyn. When I asked her how to properly enunciate something on the menu, she dismissed it as unworthy to pronounce. Instead of answering me, she said with a wave of her hand: "It's bad Italian." I wanted to correct her mistake, but not wishing to antagonize my food handler I dropped it. The scars of northern cultural hegemony run deep.

Despite these difficulties, Prof. Cipolla is confident the Sicilian language is not in danger of being lost. "The Sicilian people," quoting the critic Licio Zinna, "are becoming more jealous of their language than they are of their women." I'm not sure I share their optimism. 

One thing's for certain, this book is an important step in the right direction in helping to prevent that loss. At 336 pages long, it is a welcome addition to Prof. Cipolla's earlier work, The Sounds of Sicilian (Legas 2005) and Dr. J. Kirk Bonner's Introduction to Sicilian Grammar (Legas 2008). It comes with an easy to use interactive audio CD featuring The Sounds of Sicilian, which offers students an opportunity to practice their pronunciation.

According to Prof. Cipolla the volume was designed for the classroom and self-learners. It will provide the linguistic tools and cultural information needed to communicate. The assignments highlight the island's vast history and vibrant culture. Regional geography, cuisine and historical personages are used to help instruct students. Even the Greek myths about Persephone, Odysseus and Daedalus (among others set in Sicily) are featured. Poetry and tongue twisters are used as well.
Professor Gaetano Cipolla
Following the lecture, a question and answer period ensued. When asked if he was planning a second book for more advanced students, Prof. Cipolla smiled (alluding to the exhausting work he put into this volume) and said, "let's see how well this book does first." The title was available for purchase and I got my copy. I also picked up one for our friends at H.E.L.P., the Hellenic Education and Learning Program in Astoria (30-96 42nd St.). I think they will enjoy the learning exercises employing the Greek myths. I'm looking forward to begin my lessons.

It needs to be mentioned that Dr. Scelsa, founder and President of the Italian American Museum, has generously donated 20 copies of the textbook to schools in Palermo, matching Arba Sicula's donation.

The conversation continued late into the evening as Prof. Cipolla joined us for dinner at Grotta Azzurra (177 Mulberry St.), a Neapolitan restaurant in the heart of NYC's Little Italy. We had a lively and informative discussion about all things Sicilian. 

Many thanks to Prof. Cipolla for his hard work and commitment to our community. We wish him the best of luck and much success with his new book. Of course we cannot forget Dr. Scelsa and the Italian American Museum for hosting this wonderful event. The IAM continues to do a wonderful job organizing events that promote our Southern Italian culture and heritage. 

Prof. Cipolla will speak again on April 19th (7:00 pm) at Stony Brook University. The event will be held in the Center for Italian Studies in the Frank Melville Memorial Library, Room E4340. For more info contact: josephine.fusco@stonybrook.edu or visit their website

Additional reading:
• "Is Sicilian a Language or a Dialect?" by Gaetano Cipolla, Siciliana: Studies on the Sicilian Ethos, Legas, 2005, p. 99-120
• "A Dream Realized: A Modern Grammar of Sicilian Is Now Available," Sicilia Parra, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, Fall 2012, p. 1 and 3

April 4, 2013

Announcing 'The History of the Town of Craco'

Now Available at Amazon.com

• The History of the Town of Craco by Dino D'Angella (translated by the Craco Society)

Publisher: Create Space Independent Publishing Platform
Publication Date: April 1, 2013
Paperback: $29.95
Language: English
Pages: 176

Click here to see more books

April 3, 2013

Pizza and Paulaner: Celebrating the Feast of San Francesco di Paola

"LITE FARE" — Soppressata, caciocavallo, olives, 'nduja, pizza and beer
(Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
By Giovanni di Napoli

In addition to the obligatory Lenten dietary restrictions (no meat on Fridays, etc.) members of my family usually give up one or two additional things for Lent. Customarily for me its macaroni (the food I love most in the world). This year I also gave up beer. Admittedly, I don't drink a lot of beer, but I do enjoy an occasional pint every now and again, especially when I have pizza. 
Last night some friends and I got together to celebrate the Feast of San Francesco di Paola. It was nothing extravagant, just a small gathering with some lite fare. I thought it would be apropos that my first beer since beginning my abstention was in honor of the holy man. However, it could not just be any beer, it had to be Paulaner bier from Munich. Reputedly, the monks who started making this most excellent brew in 1634 to support their charities were members of the Order of Minim founded by Saint Francis. Apparently, Paulaner is a corruption of Paola, the town in Calabria where Saint Francis was born.

Evviva San Francesco! 

April 1, 2013

New Books

Some new and forthcoming titles that may be of interest to our readers. All are available at Amazon.com

Learn Sicilian / Mparamu lu sicilianu (English and Italian Edition) by Gaetano Cipolla

Publisher: Legas
Publication Date: February 21, 2013
Paperback: $32.00
Language: English
Pages: 336

Medieval Amalfi and its Diaspora, 800-1250 by Patricia Skinner

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication Date: June 1, 2013
Hardback: $60.71
Language: English
Pages: 336

Trinàcria: A Tale of Bourbon Sicily by Anthony Di Renzo

Publisher: Guernica Editions
Publication Date: December 1, 2013
Paperback: $13.60
Language: English
Pages: 160

Click here to see more books