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Arthur Avenue preserves Italian culinary heritage

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I needed a sfogliatelle fix. I'm not Italian, but I spent my high school years outside Manhattan, in northern Jersey, so many of my friends were Italian-American. After school, their moms replicated favorite down-home dishes. Visiting these kitchens was like winning a first-class plane ticket to some Italian port city like Naples or Genoa. Buying Italian pastries -- including sfogliatelle, cookies and breads -- was easy. I knew the owners of these shops; I went to school with their kids.

But many of these older European businesses have closed now. Descendants have moved away or taken jobs in other industries. Famed ethnic enclaves in major urban areas are continuously changing. These neighborhoods, which once offered cultural goods and social networks, are not needed when that group is absorbed into the larger society. Fortunately, for food lovers, some of these enclaves, like Grant Avenue's Chinatown in San Francisco, survive.

Arthur Avenue in the Bronx is one such enclave. Originally, this small area was a sheep meadow which provided cleaner air to Italian immigrants living in Manhattan. Today, this Italian community oozes with charm and fabulous food.

When driving into the Belmont Area, in which Arthur Avenue is located, the streetscape changes suddenly from flat-faced warehouses highlighted by extensive graffiti and student housing for Fordham University to an urban streetscape circa 1930. Joe Pesci accents abound. Pesci, in fact, used to work in a restaurant here until he was discovered by diners Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese.

Storefronts extend their real estate onto the sidewalk with bins of fruit, tins of olive oil, or iced seafood. Awnings provide some cover to the merchandise below. Above the storefronts are three-, four- and five-story buildings, although some locations are singles. Within several blocks are six Italian bakeries and pastry shops; three butcher shops specializing in pork; another four meat markets (one had fresh killer rabbit on display); two seafood markets; several gift shops (one which sells imported Italian Nutella); cheese shops with hard-to-find imported cheese; five delis; and two pasta makers. Included in this neighborhood are nine restaurants, many of which do not take reservations and become crowded by 5 p.m.

In the middle of Arthur Avenue is the Arthur Avenue Market, established in 1940 by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. He created an indoor market so the pushcart vendors would have a place to get out of the cold. In this market are hand-crafted cigars as well as several meat markets, including one selling lamb, beef and pork offal. At Peter's Market, the lamb is split in half from the nose to the tail. Across the aisle are produce vendors with fresh olives ready for brining and the foods of the season -- in this case, imported chestnuts from Italy and jujube, an oval fruit which looks like a date and tastes like an apple.

Across from the market is Randazzo's Fish Market, 2327 Arthur Ave. They shuck and sell clams outside their shop; inside are rows of fish from fresh sardines to branzino. Mid-sized octopus, sea urchin, and a variety of clams are available as well. Around the corner is DeLillo Pastry Shop, 606 East 187th St., established in 1925, with a few tables and pastry cases which run the length of the shop. Rows of cookies delight wide-eyed children and adults alike -- these include taralli, a large sugar-coated egg biscotti; vanilla- and orange-flavored Umberto; amaretti, an almond paste cookie with powdered sugar; and calzone, a sandwiched butter cookie sprinkled with chopped walnuts and filled with apricot marmalade. At the front of this shop is a popular gelato stand.

While some of the stores in the Arthur Avenue neighborhood clearly cater to tourists, others seem to be doing business as they have since they were established. One such place, Borgatti's Ravioli & Egg Noodles, has been making pasta for over 70 years in their shop on East 187th Street. On hand are various members of the Borgatti family, who talk to the customers while cutting pasta to order. Borgatti's is renowned for its delicate raviolis, either cheese or beef and spinach. The small ones come in square sheets of 25, with five of these sheets per box (100 in all) for $12. It doesn't get better than this.

Even though my crew was loaded down with packages, we made our way to find the glorious Neapolitan dishes at the 54-seat Roberto's Restaurant, 603 Crescent Ave., for dinner. Around their rustic farmhouse tables, our waiter served the gargantuan portions family-style: fig and prosciutto raviolis, mozzarella with heirloom tomatoes, rigatoni with wild boar, grilled octopus, and ever-so-tender veal with lemon. Nothing here is a tricked-up version of Italian classics. It tastes like Italy itself.

Know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, and new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? To be included in our online blog, Eat My Charlotte, send information to Tricia via e-mail (no attachments, please -- these are destined for the spam filter): tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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