Thursday, May 3, 2007

Back to Belmont

I love shopping in Belmont, Bronx, (aka "Little Italy of the Bronx" or simply "Arthur Avenue") and have recently begun going there from time to time during the week late in the afternoon. I like to stop in at Joe's Deli on East 187th Street, where his son, Nick, who says he was "born" in the store (or at least raised there) is always extra helpful. Those quiet afternoons are a wonderful time to shop: You don't get the hectic energy of the weekend crowds, and you do have the delightful opportunity to buy what you want at Teitel's, or anywhere else, for that matter, without waiting on line.

Terranova Bakery sells its bread at a discount late in the day, which is nice to know, but Madonia doesn't, at least during the week. About 10 years ago, I had taken my daughter to the Bronx Zoo (she was in a stroller then), and we then headed to Belmont. It was a Saturday, also around 5 PM. Madonia was selling off a lot of its bread for half-price, so I indulged!

It seems like more cafes and delis are opening in Belmont, including a new Bistro owned by Roberto Paciello, who operates the famous Roberto's on Crescent Street (actually, it hasn't quite opened yet, but will soon), and Umberto's Clam House has already opened an outpost here. I wonder whether more of Manhattan's Little Italy places (not that there are too many left...) will similarly come to the Bronx.

But what is utterly striking is that you don't have to stray far from the immediate neighborhood to see how Belmont is almost an "alien presence" in the Bronx. I know my way around the many buses to Belmont and I sometimes like to take a different side street either to Fordham Road or Southern Boulevard when I'm heading home. It's one of those New York experiences: turn the corner and you're in a different neighborhood. It's almost eerie, but it underscores the extent to which Belmont is NOT residentially Italian at all (with a few older hangers-on; but even many of the older proprietors now live in Westchester, Long Island, or further north in the Bronx).

At one time Belmont's Italian center was considered fragile. The Bronx was in decline; neighborhoods were not safe; mass transit was unpleasant; the retail market was not fully occupied and not in good shape. Things began to change in the early 80s when community developers and business owners decided to go all out and make Belmont a destination, and they have succeeded wildly: the market was renovated (but still has a somewhat seedy air), and folks crowd in on the weekend. (It helps that Fordham University is across the street...). And the gourmet craze has helped enormously.

But this afternoon, as the stores closed and the "real" Belmont emerged, I wondered whether it is in fact a fragile neighborhood. The surrounding housing is nothing to shout about, unlike some neighborhoods (take almost all of Harelm for example!) that have beautiful housing stock.

So I shopped, schmoozed with a few market owners I know, and had a delicious slice of eggplant pizza at Giovanni's (whose owner is Albanian, like many places in Belmont).

(Here's a photo of the owner of Giovanni's - George - making a pizza.)

I bought two big cartons of strawberries for $1 each - wow - cannoli shells and cannoli cream at Egidio's, and mozzarella at Joe's Deli, which has become a favorite place ever since I got to know Nick, Joe's son, who's just a great guy. (He let me watch the mozzarella being prepared.) Of course I went to Borgatti's and got some fresh ravioli for my daughter. Then I turned the corner and was back in "the Bronx" and headed for the bus (actually two buses and a subway) to get home.

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