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A Walk on Arthur Avenue

A Walk on Arthur Avenue
The More the Bronx’s Little Italy Changes, the More It Stays the Same

Peter Madonia, chief operating officer of the Rockefeller Foundation, pauses outside Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Belmont. Every weekend, he visits the Bronx's Little Italy to shop and eat and look in on Madonia Brothers Bakery, the business his grandfather established in 1918. More Images
By Ryan Stellabotte
Photos by Bill Denison

Peter Madonia’s eyes light up: Driving down Arthur Avenue on a Thursday afternoon in June, he spots a free parking space directly across the street from the bakery his grandfather established in 1918. Good luck finding that spot on a Saturday, when Belmont is bustling with scores of New Yorkers and suburbanites back in the Bronx’s Little Italy to shop and eat the way their parents and grandparents taught them.

“This used to be a neighborhood where everyone did what my grandmother did,” Madonia says. “In the morning she got up, she went out and she bought whatever they were eating that night: fish or meat, vegetables, bread, whatever else they needed, and then she came home to prepare the meal. And that was Monday. Tuesday she got up and did it again, and Wednesday and Thursday and so on. And that went on for years here, up through the ’80s.”

Nowadays, the Italian-American population of Belmont is small, but the neighborhood’s old-world flavor remains rich and strong as espresso. People flock to Belmont—not far, as the pigeon flies, from the Bronx Zoo, the New York Botanical Garden and Fordham University’s Rose Hill campus—in large part for the quality, variety and value of the food available. And not least for the community’s authenticity: Belmont is home to a remarkable number of businesses still run by the Italian-American families who started them, in some cases more than 90 years ago.

Among the merchants in the roughly four-square-block area are two fish markets, four butcher stores, two pork stores, four pastry shops, six bakeries, two cheese shops, one pasta shop, and more than a dozen delis, cafés and restaurants.

Slide Show: A Walk on Arthur Avenue
“The beautiful thing about this neighborhood is that every business owner thinks that the people who come here are coming for them, and everybody else is a beneficiary,” Madonia says. “I think if you took all of these businesses and put them in a mall somewhere, they’d die of boredom. It’s all the pieces of it that make it special—it’s the neighborhood, it’s the history, it’s the milieu.”

Although he grew up working in the bakery, Madonia didn’t always appreciate the value of the neighborhood or the family business. “I hated it when I was kid,” he says, especially laboring through the predawn hours before the bakery’s first customers would arrive at 6 a.m. “I wanted to break out, see a little bit of the world outside of this neighborhood.” So after graduating from Fordham University in 1975 with a B.A. in anthropology and political science, Madonia moved to the Windy City, where he earned a master’s degree in urban studies at the University of Chicago.

When he returned to New York in the late 1970s, he went to work as chief of staff for Deputy Mayor Nat Leventhal and before long advanced to deputy commissioner of the New York City Fire Department. In 1988, however, his older brother, Mario, who had been running the family bakery, was killed in a car accident. Amid the grief, Madonia faced a difficult decision: Would he continue on the fast track in city government or help his father keep the bakery alive?

“I made the right choice for my family, but it was hard,” Madonia says. “It’s not the way you want to wind up in a business.” The bakery thrived nonetheless, and by the mid-1990s Madonia had taken in a partner, Charlie Lalima. He also kept in touch with his former colleagues in city government and, in 2001, became a policy adviser to Michael Bloomberg, who was running for mayor. Following Bloomberg’s election, Madonia was named chief of staff, a position he held till late 2005, when he left City Hall to become chief operating officer of the Rockefeller Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting poverty throughout the world.

As gratifying as Madonia’s careers in City Hall and at the Rockefeller Foundation have been, he says the 13 years he spent running the bakery on a daily basis taught him to recognize “the intrinsic value of a family business and an institution that has history.” He enjoyed mastering the artful science of baking, but he especially relished the daily exchanges with his customers.

“What a positive thing it is to have people say, ‘Thank you, I love your product. I want to bring my kids. I put this on my dinner table.’ That's their house,” he says. “You go home with them.”

Frank Franz (right), president of the Belmont Small Business Association, talks with Madonia and Gil Teitel outside Teitel Brothers grocery store.
Madonia is back in Belmont today to enjoy a rare afternoon off from his usual weekday duties at the Rockefeller Foundation. Car parked, he sets off on foot.

Soon he’s in Enzo’s, where he finds Lalima having lunch with several friends, including the chef at Enzo’s and the owner of the pastry shop next door. The topic of conversation is turnaround time. What’s that, you wonder? “It’s the time it takes after you dunk a cookie to get it from the cup of coffee into your mouth before it falls apart,” Madonia says. “And for every cookie, the turnaround time is different.”

Time is elastic on Arthur Avenue, and it doesn’t take long for Madonia to get back into the old-world rhythm of the place. He meets Frank Franz, FCRH ’75, an Arthur Avenue native who is president of the Belmont Small Business Association.

Madonia and Franz walk and talk with Gil Teitel, second-generation owner of Teitel Brothers, the gourmet grocery store that has been selling imported olive oil, tomatoes, cheeses and other goods on the corner of Arthur Avenue and 186th Street since 1915. Two storefronts down is Coseza’s Fish Market, where imported bronzino and orato rest on ice among local bluefish and croakers. Customers often crowd around the street-side raw bar for freshly shucked oysters and clams. “He has to be half an economist in order to buy and price,” Madonia says of John Cosenza, son of the store’s current owner. “He has to understand the macroeconomy of the fishing industry, the regulatory processes.”

Like Madonia, Sal Biancardi has worked both on and off Arthur Avenue. He returned to the family-run Biancardi Meats in 1997, after 11 years as a currency trader for Morgan Stanley.
At Biancardi Meats, Madonia looks in on his friend Sal and continues to talk about the business of running a family business. Like Madonia, Sal Biancardi has spent more than a decade working both on and off the avenue. He returned to the family store in 1997, after 11 years as a currency trader for Morgan Stanley.

“You get a different perspective on what family businesses are all about because you learn how cutthroat the rest of the world is,” Biancardi says of his time as a trader. “When the chips are down, there’s not too many people in your corner. But then a family business is completely different. You’re here for good or for bad.”

From Biancardi’s it’s on briefly to Madonia Brothers Bakery. The pungent, savory smell of house-cured sausage and sopressata is replaced by the warm aroma of freshly baked bread and cookies—the traditional pane di casa and the onion, olive and sausage breads; the biscotti, pignoli and cannoli “filled while you wait.”

Next stop is the famed Arthur Avenue Retail Market, a landmark in Belmont since 1940, when Mayor Fiorello Laguardia sprearheaded the construction of the building as a shelter for the pushcart vendors who had been selling their products out in the street. Madonia doesn’t get far before he sees an old friend, Nicky Pots and Pans, behind the counter where he sells imported espresso makers, pasta machines and other housewares. “I wouldn’t know what else to call him,” Madonia says of his friend’s nickname. “Nobody would.”

The old friends say goodbye and Madonia walks over to greet Joe Libertore, the unofficial mayor of the place, one of the original vendors for whom the market was built. Now 90, the former vegetable man sells flowers, seeds and plants. “When we were outside, we were peasants,” he once told a Daily News reporter. “When we moved inside, LaGuardia said, ‘Now you're merchants.’”

Joseph Migliucci, chef and owner of Mario's Restaurant, makes pizza the way his father taught him.
One door down from the market is Mario’s Restaurant, which started as a pizzeria in 1919 but offers a broad range of classic Neapolitan dishes. Chef and owner Joseph Migliucci greets Madonia and invites him to sit down with another guest. It’s late afternoon, the brief lull between lunch and dinner. Migliucci says, “I’ll make a pizza. You want some pizza?” Ten minutes later the perfectly cooked pie arrives: The crust is pleasantly chewy, the tangy sauce blending with the fresh mozzarella and basil in a remarkable balance of flavor.

Leaving Mario’s, Madonia walks off the late-afternoon snack by heading to the Casa di Mozzarella, on 187th Street, just east of Arthur Avenue. His friend Orazio Carciotto is in the back of the store making the house specialty. He forces a hunk of curd through a sieve into a stainless steel bowl. After a little hand-mixing, he adds several small pots full of boiling water to the bowl and thrusts his hands back in to knead the mixture until the mozzarella begins to form. Using a wooden paddle, he molds and stretches the cheese till it shines and, in a series of deft movements, folds the product into a ball or braids it into knots.

He repeats the process. “People ask, ‘How much water?’ I tell them I know when it’s right,” he says.

Since 1935, Mario Borgatti has been making fresh pasta cut to order at Borgatti's Ravioli & Egg Noodles, across the street from Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church.
The last stop of the afternoon is Borgatti’s Ravioli & Egg Noodles, which has been making fresh pasta cut to order for approximately 75 years. There’s a hand-operated pasta machine behind the counter. “When we opened the store in 1935, it was already used,” says Mario Borgatti, 92. He taps the wheel. “Still works. Even in blackouts.”

Madonia and Franz step out of Borgatti’s and walk across 187th Street toward Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, which has been the spiritual and cultural center of the neighborhood since 1907. The church still hosts the annual feasts—of St. Anthony and Our Lady of Mount Carmel—that draw thousands back to the old neighborhood each summer.

“This parish is what they call an Italian national parish,” Franz says. “There are parishioners here from all over who have a fondness for the church.”

The richness of that heritage is what makes Belmont unique, Madonia says. “In a city like New York, there are lots of ethnic neighborhoods, but very few that have kept the heritage even after the people moved to the suburbs. We were able to do it both through the church and the commercial venue.

“People might say, ‘You’re stuck in a time warp,’” he says. “Maybe. I don’t know. Somebody likes it.”

—Ryan Stellabotte is the editor of FORDHAM magazine.

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