It’s often difficult for locals to explain to some visitors that “Little Italy” hasn’t truthfully resided in Manhattan since Martin Scorsese filmed a San Gennaro procession and Tony Soprano moved to Jersey. The fact is that cultural sprawl (mostly from Chinatown) have consumed what once was a must-see tour of the downtown neighborhood for the best prosciutto cotto, cappuccino, pane and pasta al dente. Don’t misunderstand me, the festive streets of Mott and Mulberry still exist, however, New York’s more authentic Little Italy is much further north. Arthur Avenue in the Bronx (Belmont) to be exact.
The Belmont neighborhood’s history dates back to the 1700’s with the manufacturing of snuff by Pierre Abraham Lorillard who came to New York and started the first tobacco company, P. Lorillard & Co., which is still in business today. It originally opened in lower Manhattan shortly before moving up to the Bronx where the factory purchased a large tract of land along the Bronx River and built their estate named “Belle Mont.” Their original plant, the “Old Snuff Mill” still stands in the New York Botanical Garden.
In 1870, the manufacturing facilities were moved to New Jersey and Catherine Lorillard Wolfe, Pierre’s great granddaughter, inherited the vast estate. A great admirer of President Chester A. Arthur, Wolfe named the main street of this community, “Arthur Avenue,” in his honor. Other portions of the estate were transformed into the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden. Construction on these institutions began in 1898, which drove Italian immigrants to move and work in the Belmont community. By the beginning of the 20th century, the neighborhood was established as “Little Italy” and often referred to as the “Italian colonies” in the Bronx.
Today, “Little Italy” of the Bronx is reopening for another year of their special outdoor dining similar to an Italian piazza. The Belmont Business Improvement District will close vehicular traffic on Arthur Ave (from East 188th Street to Crescent Avenue) during weekends beginning Friday, May 6 through Sunday, September 25 for in-street outdoor dining. Street closure hours will run from 6pm to 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and 3pm to 9pm on Sundays. Visitors can expect to see their favorite restaurants participating like Zero Otto Nove, Enzo’s of Arthur Avenue, Emilia’s Restaurant, Mario’s Restaurant, San Gennaro Ristorante, Estrellita Poblana III, and Gurra Café.
New to the event this year will be performances by a capella group “The Belmont 4.” The group will stop by restaurants during opening weekend and the last weekend of every month to sing doo-wop, Italian favorites, hits from the 50’s through today, and take a few requests. Weekend performance hours will run on Fridays and Saturdays 6pm – 8pm, and Sundays 4pm – 6pm.
I can’t think of a better way to spend some time outdoors with the aroma of authentic home-style cooking permeating the spring air —perhaps romancing over an Aperol spritz, a cappuccino and everything from amaretti cookies to zabaglione.
For more details:
Photo Credits/Illustration: Bronx Face Book, NYC Historic Society, Hector Nazario and PK Greenfield.