Where to Find Italy in America: The Bronx's Arthur Avenue

| Fri, 09/02/2016 - 00:00

This article is part of our new monthly series, "Where to Find Italy in America" (part of the Italian-American section), devoted to Italian-American communities in the United States: where they live, where they gather, where to find a little bit of Italy in different U.S. cities and states.

Walk a few blocks around the intersection of Arthur Avenue and East 187th Street in the Belmont section of New York’s Bronx and you are likely to hear Italian spoken, smell the tantalizing aromas of freshly cooked Italian food, and see people going about their grocery shopping at the many specialty stores: the bakery, the cheese and salumi shop, the seafood market, the fresh pasta store. Just like what you would see in an Italian neighborhood. And that is the pride of the Bronx's  Little Italy; many locals say this is the ‘real’ Little Italy of New York, as compared to Manhattan’s Mulberry Street, which many say has lost its authenticity, especially after the Italians moved out, to become merely a tourist attraction.

The real Little Italy of New York?

For decades, the Little Italy of the Bronx has remained somewhat hidden, obscured by the popularity of Little Italy in Manhattan; in recent years, however, it has started to claim a spot on the list of New York’s most interesting locations. Even though many of the original residents left the neighborhood in the 1970s and 80s, the Italian character of the streets and shops has stayed authentic, perhaps right thanks to its isolation. The food products, from the cheese to the cold cuts to the olive oil, are often imported from Italy, and the business owners are proud Italian Americans. 

“Bronx Little Italy is dubbed by many as the ‘real little Italy’ simply because of its authenticity,” says Alyssa Tucker, the assistant director at the Belmont Business Improvement District (BID), the organization established to promote the community, its businesses and traditions. “Many of the businesses here have been around for nearly 100 years or more and are still owned by descendants of their original founders. The bakeries, pastry shops and cheese shops make their fresh homemade products daily as it has always been done. Customers and visitors enjoy the friendly small town atmosphere compared to the Manhattan publicity spotlight.”

A brief history of the Bronx Little Italy

The Belmont area of the Bronx was once part of the huge estate owned by the Lorillard family who built the first tobacco company in in New York in 1760.

When the city began to build streets in the area in the late 19th century, a member of the Lorillard family, Catherine, asked that the main street be named after 21st U.S. president Chester A. Arthur, whom she admired – hence the establishment of Arthur Avenue, which today is synonymous with the Little Italy of the Bronx.

It was then that the immigrants influx began. First the Germans and Irish, then the Italians, who began moving to the Bronx in large numbers at the end of the 19th century to help build the rapidly growing neighborhood and to work at the recently opened Bronx Zoo and Botanical Gardens.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the Belmont area was already known as Little Italy. And with the Italian immigrants came food shops, restaurants, and that strong sense of family and community that characterize Italians.

[Arthur Avenue pushcarts in the 1940s.]

“Growing up in the Little Italy of the Bronx was a great experience,” says Richard Liberatore, son of Joe Liberatore, the founder of Liberatore’s Garden, which sells Italian plants, flowers and seeds, along with seasonal vegetables. “This was the community where my father settled when he arrived from Italy. He found the people to be strong in family, religious, and personal values. Growing up, it was one family of thousands of people.” Of the business he took over from his father, Liberatore says, “It was and is all about the people who shop. You become a member of their family, know their problems, enjoy their triumphs.”

Even literary and movie stars are associated with the Bronx Little Italy. Author Don DeLillo, who grew up on Arthur Avenue, set his famous novel “Underworld” in the area. And Robert De Niro’s directing debut, “A Bronx Tale”, takes place in the vicinity of Belmont.

A day in the neighborhood

Perhaps the best way to begin your day in the Bronx Little Italy is to go on a guided tour. Alexandra Maruri is the founder of Bronx Historical Tours, a tour company that runs small themed tours of the Bronx. She is very passionate about the neighborhood and can provide a lot of insider’s information both about the area and the people who live there.

“Our Bronx Little Italy is probably the most traditional neighborhood in New York City,” says Maruri, who grew up in the Bronx and founded the company when she realized the potential of the area as an interesting and historic tourist destination. “I thought of highlighting our history, expanding on the secrets of the specialty stores and restaurants, an opportunity to show the world we own a piece of history that no one hears about - the media always focuses on the negative aspects of The Bronx.”

[Fresh produce sold at the Arthur Avenue Retail Market, which specializes in Italian food.]

Do not be afraid to explore on your own. Here is a handy list of some great shops selling Italian delicacies: Madonia Bakery for artisan bread, Casa Della Mozzarella for freshly made specialty cheeses, Artuso Pastry for Italian pastries, Full Moon for their variety of pizzas, Enzo’s Restaurant for their meatballs, Cosenza’s Fish Market for fresh seafood, Borgatti’s for their freshly made ravioli and pasta, La Cantina Wine & Liquors for their rare Italian wines, Cerini Coffee for coffee beans, and the Arthur Avenue Retail Market, "which is like taking a step back into Italy," says Tucker. The Botanical Gardens and Bronx Zoo are nearby.

Every year, the Sunday after Labor Day, the Bronx Little Italy celebrates its biggest event, Ferragosto (this year, September 11, from 12-6 pm). It’s a celebration of Italian culture, with live entertainment, Italian street performers, food stands from the local businesses and a great chance to immerse yourself in the atmosphere of the neighborhood. On Columbus Day (this year, Monday, October 10th), the BID is organizing a Bocce Ball Tournament in Ciccarone Park.

Get involved with the Bronx Little Italy

Stay up-to-date with neighborhood events by visiting the Belmond Business Improvement District (BID) website, and follow them on Facebook and Instagram. Share your photos of the neighborhood with the hashtag #bronxlittleitaly, the BID loves to share their visitors photos.

Visit the Bronx Historical Tours website for information about guided tours in the area and follow them on Facebook.