New York’s Best Old-Time Neighborhood–And Food–Is An Easy Must-See

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Credit: Rosalind Eskenazi

Inside Joe’s Deli

If you want to feel like a New Yorker—get the rhythm of the pace, the language, the streets—then get yourself up to what could be the last authentic old-timey neighborhood in all of the great city:  Historic Arthur Avenue and environs in the Bronx.

Yes, this area, also known as the Belmont Business District, looks and feels and sounds like the New York you first met in old movies, or television shows. It is a legitimate Little Italy in food—pizza the way it’s made in Naples; pasta from Italian semolina; food shops where a ton of slabs of pork hang from the ceiling; bakeries with 35 kinds of cookies.

And then there’s the people—the store-owners will tell you how their grandparents came here after the war—World War I, that is. Or they might even take you in the back, if you ask nicely, and show you how to stuff a canoli.

The neighborhood reeks of authenticity. Indeed, that is what drives everyone, explains Peter Madonia. He is the head of the Belmont Business Improvement District and owner of the iconic Madonia Bakery. Its aroma is sweeter than the scent of roses from the nearby Botanical Garden.

“We double-down on our authenticity,” he explains. “Some restaurants won’t serve eggplant parmigiana because that’s really an ‘American-Italian’ dish—not a food that was created in Italy.”

Credit: Rosalind Eskenazi

Seeing Isn’t Believing

The area is celebrating a host of events in the coming months, and should be high on any tourist’s list of places to visit in New York—along with the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, and the Met. And if you’re a New Yorker—well, you’ll feel even more of a native after visiting.

There are several celebrations, including Mario’s Restaurant centennial (they’re giving a free slice if you mention that during a visit). Then there’s the New York Pizza Festival on Oct. 5 and 6, and the Ferragosto Feast on Sept. 8, celebrating the end of the harvest season (the one in Italy, not the Bronx).

On a recent visit, I dropped in on Joe’s Deli, floor-to-ceiling shelves of olive oil, pasta. The ceiling itself holding dried slabs of pork. There is a counter filled with 12 kinds of olives! Want some protein?: more than 50 types of cheese, 30 varieties of meat.

At Egidio’s Pastry, where the philosophy is “Life is uncertain, so eat the dessert first,” I stopped counting cookie varieties after I got to 35.

Credit: Rosalind Eskenazi

Credit: Rosalind Eskenazi

Sweet Surprises

And at Mario’s Restaurant, the manager told me he declined Martin Scorsese’s idea to film the famous shooting scene—where the Al Pacino character in “The Godfather” wastes a crooked cop. In reality, the neighborhood is one of the safest in the city. Besides, Mario’s also makes incredible thin-crust pizza, its tomato sauce taste lingering even after you’ve brushed your teeth.

As if I didn’t have enough, I tried home-made pasta at Mangi, where a chalkboard outside has this information: “Everything made freshand from scratch.”Quite simply, I had the two best pasta dishes ever—a simple noodle and cheese (peppered up), and penne and pesto.

The adventure continues beyond the restaurants, all of which are a block or so of one another. There is the Arthur Avenue Retail Market, a sort of mall. There, in the front, are half a dozen guys rolling cigars from scratch. Just wander to different counters, licking your chops at the variety of food.

Getting there from Manhattan? Take either Metro North or the New Haven line to Fordham Road. Subway? It’s the 4 or D train to Fordham Road and then the 12-bus east (or a quick cab ride from the station).  And if you want to wander from Little Italy, you’re pretty close to the Bronx Zoo and the Bronx Botanical Garden.

Don’t be surprised if you start using Italian expressions and waving your hands on the way home.