Wednesday, November 21, 2007

They Call Me the Wanderer

When I was preparing to move to New York, I raided the Virginia Tech library's collection of New York books. It was an eclectic selection, leaning heavily towards dense histories and scholarly treatises. After reading a few of these, I was overjoyed to discover David Yeadon's New York Nooks and Crannies. A strange and eclectic guidebook, it was a fun read, and I finished it quickly. I soon bought my own copy, and it has become a well-thumbed, heavily-attotated addition to my book collection. It's filled with pieces about various areas of the city, and directs the reader to all sorts of lesser-known spots that are absolutely amazing. Yeadon views his city with wonder, love, and awe, and passes those emotions on to his reader.

The only trouble is that the book is thirty years old.

There are good sides to this: using Yeadon, it is possible to travel not only across space, but also through time. He describes a New York that is caught in the grip of crime, but is still beautiful and proud. In his city, Fourteenth Street is loaded with meat markets and hookers, instead of chain stores and boutiques. Union Square is a dangerous cesspool, rather than a benign hangout for pseudo-hippies. With Yeadon, one can imagine the city that was, where ethnic enclaves brushed shoulders with each other, while danger and delight went hand in hand.

This isn't to say that there aren't dangers. However, the biggest threat is probably urban renewal. Many of Yeadon's hangouts have long since been replaced by chain stores or destroyed by wrecking balls. With some trepidation, I followed Yeadon's directions to Arthur Avenue, the Bronx's Little Italy, terrified that I would find a collection of vacant storefronts or, worse yet, a line of Forever 21s, Starbucks, and KFCs.

This quest was not just idle curiosity: I was genuinely interested in finding an authentic Italian enclave. Today, if you ask New Yorkers about Little Italy, they usually direct you to the South end of Manhattan, where three blocks of Mulberry Street between Broome and Canal are pretty much all that remains of what was once a sprawling Italian neighborhood. This is the famous face of Italy in New York, where Lucky Luciano and Frank Costello grew up, where Coppola shot The Godfather, and where numerous legends of murders, kidnappings, and assorted dirty deals were cemented in the public imagination.

Over the years, most of the Italian residents of Manhattan's Little Italy have moved on to greener pastures, leaving the area to an aggressive and rapacious Chinese population. All that remains is a small street, lined with great restaurants and little ethnic stores, that caters to tourists. Every night, the restaurants and stores wrap up, and the employees drive home to Long Island and New Jersey, leaving the street to the Chinese who now live there and who will one day swallow up Mulberry Street like a final, dry meatball. In the meantime, I wouldn't say that Manhattan's Little Italy isn't authentic; it's every bit as authentic as Busch Gardens, or Epcot, or The Olive Garden.

I was pleased to discover that, not only is Arthur Avenue still up and running, but it is also a genuine and authentic Italian enclave. Like Manhattan's Little Italy, it is filled with great restaurants and stores, some of which are definitely aimed at the tourist trade, but the difference lies in the people who populate it. For example, there is Ciccarone Park, at the corner of 187th Street and Arthur Avenue. In the summer, the park is often full of people playing bocci or chess or just watching their grandkids. As evening comes, they aren't rushing to get in the car and get home before the kids get out of hand. After a while, I started to realize that they weren't in a hurry to go because home was just a short walk away.

And this relaxation bleeds through everywhere. On my last visit to the community market on Arthur Avenue, the counterman proudly pointed out the "Arthur Avenue" olive oil that he named after his daughter. A few doors down, the guy in the cheese shop cut me a deal because he knew that I'd be back. Ditto the guy in the Calabria Pork Store, where aging sopressata sausages hang in clusters from the ceiling and my wife had to leave because she saw a greasy plastic container that was full of pig viscera. On another visit, my wife and I sat outside Giovanni's restaurant and pizzaria. I sipped on a limoncello while she drank a glass of wine and we both watched the people strolling down the street. It didn't take us long to realize that this is a neighborhood, and these people are invested in maintaining a friendly, comfortable space.

I'm not going to dig too deeply into the reasons that this place seems comfortable. This, after all, is the setting of A Bronx Tale. Chazz Palmintieri grew up near the corner of 187th Street and Arthur Avenue, in the heart of the district, and the movie details his childhood struggle to decide between mob life and the civilian world. Even now, there are little things that seem peculiar. For example, regardless of the time of day, the "North Bronx Athletic Club" on Arthur Avenue always seems to have a few heavy-set Italian gentlemen playing cards and smoking cigars. As far as I can tell, there isn't any working out happening.

(Incidentally, this is also the birthplace of Doo-wop. Among the residents, the area is known as Belmont, after Belmont Avenue, which runs through the neighborhood. Dion DiMucci, a local resident, borrowed the name for his group, Dion and the Belmonts.)

Regardless, the street feels safe. I've walked around late at night, but have never felt any danger or need to look over my shoulder. The people are nice, by and large, and generally seem willing to chat, answer questions, and fuss over George. In fact, the biggest danger, and the reason that we probably won't be moving to Arthur Avenue is the food. I haven't done a full accounting, but I think that there are roughly a dozen first-rate bakeries in a four or five block radius. I have done a little exploration of them, and have discovered that Madonia brothers has the best procuitto bread, onion bread, olive bread, and cannoli. Addeo is a close second on the prociutto bread. Egidio has amazing cream shells, and Morrone has cookies that will make you weep. Palombo is the most tourist-centered, with a large dining room and a selection of high-end pastries that are dazzling. Gino's, on the other hand, is very old-fashioned, with a few traditional offerings, like Osso di Morte (bones of the dead) cookies, which are great when dipped in cappucino.

This, of course, doesn't even go into the prociutto and melon appetizer that I've had at Giovanni's, the incredible roasted halibut with olives and capers at Enzo's, and the oysters on the half-shell that they sell on the street outside of Umberto's clam house. Suffice to say that my life on Arthur Avenue would be happy, but short, and might be punctuated with insulin injections. After all, it wouldn't really be fair to live in the area without sampling everything that it had to offer. Moreover, given my inclinations, I would have to compare the pastries at every bakery, the pizza at every pizzeria, and the pasta at every restaurant. Anything less would be unfair.

Before I leave, here's a shot of the scourge of Arthur Avenue, the fresh-filled mini cannoli at Madonia Brothers:

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  • Now I'm drooling.


    I need to visit. Seriously. I'm getting all jealous that everyone's MIRLing and I'm sat on this side of the Atlantic twiddling my thumbs and dreaming of pastry.


    By Blogger Glamourpuss, At November 21, 2007 at 12:12 PM  

  • It's sad (to me) to see Little Italy getting swallowed by Rising China. It's like a microcosm of the broader world, really.

    For my money, New York City is the most beautiful city in the world. I'm sure I'll still feel that way when I visit Paris one day.

    It's a great mix of organic and inorganic material, the biggest monkey hive on the planet. I love the dirt. I love how a garbage truck looks so different from a clean DC "sanitation" vehicle driven by men in clean jumpsuits w/ their names on the front.

    A New York City garbage truck looks like it's 30 years old. It looks like it could talk.

    By Blogger M@, At November 21, 2007 at 1:54 PM  

  • the biggest monkey hive on the continent, I mean. I think there are 16 cities larger in China alone.

    By Blogger M@, At November 21, 2007 at 1:55 PM  

  • no wait, the biggest monkey hive on the continent, excluding Mexico City. But still. Beautiful.

    By Blogger M@, At November 21, 2007 at 1:55 PM  

  • Ahhh, this all looks a bit familiar!

    By Anonymous Franki, At November 21, 2007 at 3:39 PM  

  • Puss-
    Mi ghetto es su ghetto. We can't offer deluxe accomodations, but I'm sure we can put a mint on your blow-up mattress.

    The offer stands.

    I understood what you meant. And I understand your feelings! New York just looks a little more lived in.

    This is what it looks like during the day. We'll save it for a future visit!

    By Blogger Crankster, At November 21, 2007 at 4:27 PM  

  • Sounds like the book you have was written about the time I lived in NYC. It has always been an amazing city, but I wouldn't want it to stop being dynamic. BTW, it has always been very fatting. My so small town mother used to send me produce to NY for fear that in a big city I would have nothing fresh to eat. I was never able to convince her otherwise.

    By Blogger Spellbound, At November 21, 2007 at 7:30 PM  

  • Spellbound-
    On the other hand, I recently had a friend from Virginia bring up a Smithfield ham. There are some things that you still can't find in the city!

    By Blogger Crankster, At November 22, 2007 at 8:34 AM  

  • Aw, you're a sweetie. I'm not always so petulant.


    By Blogger Glamourpuss, At November 22, 2007 at 9:23 AM  

  • I think I gained another pound in each asscheek reading this. And my drool is killing my keyboard.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At November 22, 2007 at 10:18 AM  

  • I am amazingly hungry, and wanting to visit when I can.

    By Blogger The CEO, At November 22, 2007 at 11:41 AM  

  • Puss-
    I know. That's why I invited you!

    If our deluxe inflatable accomodations aren't sufficiently attractive, you could always stay in the Chelsea Hotel. It's fairly cheap and features the room where Sid killed Nancy.

    And I would still be glad to act as your tour guide.

    The cannoli did it, right? It's a killer.

    And I recently had to buy new jeans. In a larger size. Ugh.

    You picked the right day to be incredibly hungry. Let me know when you're up for visiting the area!

    By Blogger Crankster, At November 22, 2007 at 1:09 PM  

  • ha i live right in around that area my daughter and i can and do walk there to eat @ giovanni's and i am soon going to find a bakery who will sell me just canoli shells to take up north to my fam since they miss the canolis and i kno how to make the filling since i worked in a pizzeria back in the mid 90s so i learned ...

    By Anonymous Davida, At August 2, 2008 at 6:22 AM  

  • Davida-
    That's fantastic! Did you find a bakery to sell you the canoli shells?

    Thanks for dropping in!

    By Blogger Crankster, At September 22, 2008 at 11:59 AM  

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