Home for the Holidays
If the classic “Twas the Night Before Christmas” was rewritten to be about Arthur Avenue, it wouldn’t be visions of sugarplums dancing in children’s head. It would be visions of panettones, of ricotta cheesecake, of myriad fishes and of countless other delights. The holiday season is when Arthur Avenue and its environs show why the area has endured and evolved.
Danielle Oteri, who with her husband Christian Galliani, owns Arthur Avenue Food Tours by Feast on History, gave me a personalized tour. Oteri is third generation Arthur Avenue— her great-grandfather owned a butcher shop whose claim to fame (besides its quality) was that it appeared in the opening shot of the movie Marty and while customers to what is now Vincent’s Meat Market may not recognize the shop’s exterior, they do recognize that Arthur Avenue is more than a physical location, it's a state of mind.
“What I love about Arthur Avenue is that it’s not a museum dedicated to Italian food,” Oteri says. The streets are decorated with lights and spangled banners hang from lamppost to lamppost. Cars filled with coolers line the streets. The stores, always filled to the brim with merchandise, are now stuffed even more with Christmas offerings.
Cerini Coffee and Gifts has jars of glazed chestnuts and bars of Sperlari chocolates lining their crowded shelves. At Cosenza’s Fish Market, there’s more than enough fish for a multitude of Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes dinners. Both Teitel Brothers and Calandra’s Cheese serve up ricotta cheese to make cheesecake and have all the necessary components for antipasti. While the sausages can come via Calabria Pork Store. Addeo Bakers is a carb-lovers delight with its bread selection and Egidio Pastry has cookie or cannoli platters. Then on the way home visitors and returning past residents drive past fantastically decorated homes.
As we toured the Belmont area of the Bronx where Arthur Avenue is, we still heard plenty of Italian being spoken, but now it's mixed with Spanish, Albanian, Polish and a host of other languages. For Christmas all these voices blend and mingle together in their pursuit of their holiday meals. Where the weekends are usually controlled chaos on the streets, from Thanksgiving on the pace of Arthur Avenue quickens, but the shopkeepers take pains to ease their customers’ stress. “Holidays are a wonderful time here,” enthuses Peter DeLuca, owner of Vincent’s Meat Market, which prides itself on its high-quality meats and 100 percent antibiotic-free poultry. However he does admit the season is stressful, customers come in looking for suggestions as to what to cook, how to cook it and, with many two-working households, may turn to food that is semi-prepared.
To accommodate the changing face of Arthur Avenue, Vincent’s sells such items as baby lambs, goats and pigs. Of course, there’s the cotechino, a sausage made with pork, fatback and pork rind, which is served on New Year’s Eve with lentils to bring good luck for the coming year, explains Oteri.
One of Arthur Avenue’s strongest points, says Oteri, is that a good number of the shopkeepers are people who grew up in the business. “A lot of the store owners own their buildings, so the area hasn’t seen the turnover that happens with gentrification.” For returning customers visiting from all over it brings them a sense of returning home for the holidays, she notes. “The shops here have an incredibly loyal clientele” and during the holidays there are a good number of families who visit to show their children or grandchildren where they used to live. Regina Delfino, fifth generation at Mario’s Restaurant, says she does a brisk reunion business during the holidays. “People make a day of it by going to the New York Botanical Garden for the train show and then come here.” While there are specials, the restaurant serves food that customers reminisce over, says Delfino.
But all those loyal customers can’t always make it to Arthur Avenue any longer because they’ve moved or, as Vincent’s DeLuca points out, may no longer drive. So the shopkeepers are meeting their needs in a number of ways—which are especially important when cooking a holiday meal. Vincent’s recently started a delivery service for clients in Manhattan and parts of Connecticut and Westchester. Borgatti’s Ravioli & Egg Noodles “decided to take advantage of the internet to reach our former customers as well as new ones and sell online,” says third-generation owner Chris Borgatti. While at the store he may cut pasta with a 100-year-old hand crank cutter, Borgatti notes, “You need to grow with technology to stay in business or expand your business.” His customers would come into the store during the holidays and bemoan the fact that they weren’t able to enjoy his products throughout the year. So they started making dry noodles that they can ship, as well as selling some of the fresh pasta. “We wanted to make sure we kept the service and the quality that we’re know for,” Borgatti says.
Quality and service are also paramount to two newcomers to the Arthur Avenue scene. Pietro and Amalia Carcassi, originally from Sicily, opened Caffè and Gelato three years ago “to bring a little piece of Italy over here,” says Pietro. He says the area has embraced them and he particularly loves the holiday spirit in the neighborhood. The stand in the Arthur Avenue Market sells Italian specialties such as Stuffoli for Christmas and the cannolis that the couple perfected in Italy. One observation from the newcomer, “We’ve noticed customers here tend to leave things more until the last minute which definitely adds to the hustle and bustle for Christmas,” says Pietro.
For all its history and its evolution, Oteri says that Arthur Avenue thrives during the holidays “because food at the holiday table is a common denominator.” She notes that whatever else is happening in the world, “People come together to share in their traditions and Arthur Avenue sustains that and is sustained by longtime residents and newcomers, from people who have moved away who come back to shop and visit, and from tourists who come for the authentic food and experience.”