An Afternoon On Arthur Avenue
A few months ago, I got a call from my Dad. He said a friend of his was headed into the Bronx, Arthur Avenue, to buy some kind of imported grating cheese he'd been eating since he was a kid. He asked if we wanted any, and even before I knew the details I was on board. I loved the idea - in a world of $5-foot-longs, Domino's Bread Bowl Pasta and Olive Garden marketer/chefs hard at work on the next ludicrous concoction able to be drizzled on a plate in slow motion, accompanied by breathless voiceover ("16-cheese frozen shrimp and truffle-dusted manicotti, with anchovy essence and imported Tuscan soil") - of an artisanal product retrieved from a childhood store, on a street that is more or less frozen in time.
The source was a little shop that has been in operation on the same corner since 1915, a packed-to-the-rafters deli-type place called Teitel Brothers, and the cheese was Fulvi Pecorino Romano, which they sell for $6.99 a pound. We got our allocation, and loved it. If the pasta-eating world is divided into Parmesan (Parmigiano-Reggiano in its highest form, green shake can of Kraft pre-grated sand in its lowest) and Romano camps, we're Romano people. Before we tried the Fulvi, the high-water mark was without a doubt imported Locatelli. The Fulvi had that great sharp tang, but with a little fuller flavor, a little richer, buttery hints that took that distinctive and welcome bite on top of pasta and red sauce to a new and slightly more intoxicating place.
It was incredible, and we quickly ran out of our supply. We discovered that Teitel Brothers is more than happy to ship its wares, which include very good and very reasonably priced unfiltered and first cold pressed olive oils, and went in on a few mail order deliveries. Then my Dad suggested we all drive in one weekend and get the full Arthur Avenue experience, and the invitation turned into a great and memorable Saturday afternoon.
My first impression was that Arthur Avenue was what you hoped Little Italy in Manhattan would be, but isn't. Whatever the history, Little Italy - to me - has turned into a fairly limited string of tourist trap restaurants. Sure, there's an enduring presence or two thrown into the mix, but the place today is like a theme park version of an old working Italian enclave, like when they stopped letting visitors tour the actual Hershey factory in Pennsylvania and instead shifted the interest and the masses to a theme-park ride along the lines of "It's A Small World," with piped in cocoa aroma.
Arthur Avenue is real, a street buzzing with activity and, more importantly, authenticity. We started off with lunch at Mario's Restaurant, which has been cranking out memorable meals since 1919. Every old school Italian joint within 50 miles of Times Square has its own version of the "Sinatra used to eat here" story, but sitting in a place like this you can actually believe it. We had terrific house salads and the pizza, which doesn't even appear on the menu (legendary foodie Ed Levine has the backstory on that), was right up there with Pepe's and Totonno's on our short list of best pies ever. A crust that can only be described as perfect, nice chunks of crushed tomatoes in the sauce, high-quality cheese. It really doesn't get much better, and another Mario's pie is, in itself, worthy justification for a return trip.
But there is so much more to see, experience and eat on Arthur Avenue. We wandered into at least three busy and seemingly thriving bread bakeries located within about a block of each other. One of them had a sign in the window seeking a part-time baker, and the romantic notion of temporarily shelving the day job in favor of a couple of months getting up at the crack of dawn and driving to Arthur Avenue to make bread lived until roughly the moment when I mentioned it to Gwen. The girls had some homemade lemon ice that passed the sweet/tart balance test with flying colors. I grabbed a very respectable espresso at a one of the many pastry shops.
We went into Teitel Brothers and stocked up on Fulvi cheese and big tins of olive oil, the place was a swirl of crowds and activity and pleasant aromas that obviously didn't come through when placing mail orders over the phone. Unbelievable value, the price of every single item we'd seen elsewhere was significantly discounted within the walls of this special little vortex.
We were told in advance not to miss the chance to stop off at Borgatti's and pick up some of their fresh pastas, particularly the ravioli. We did, bought a box of small cheese ravioli and fired them up when we got home that night. And even though we were already stuffed they were without a doubt the best ravioli we had ever had, insane little pillows of semolina and cheese, ready for whatever kind of dressing you had in mind or even eaten right out of the colander.
I have no doubt that we merely scratched the surface on our little Saturday afternoon excursion, but I know for certain that we "got" the place, succeeded in hitting a number of its high points and - especially with the summer months ahead - will absolutely be back. Back for more pizza and salads at Mario's, more olive oil/cheese stock-ups at Teitel Brothers, more ravioli and fresh pasta from Borgatti's, more bread, light a candle or two at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, maybe even take in a Mass on a street that takes you back in time, and treats you very well when you're there.
[New visitors arriving by virtue of a very gracious link from the good people over at Serious Eats might enjoy a few previous posts, including our Sunday Sauce recipe and nod to Rao's, or tribute to the late California pizza pioneer Ed LaDou, or strategy for creating ridiculously good, ridiculously slow-roasted tomatoes. Feel free to wander around and make yourself at home. And thanks Ed.]