In the late 18th century, the neighborhood we now know as Belmont — west of the Bronx Zoo and south of Fordham University — was a portion of the tobacco farm, factory, and estate belonging to the Lorillard family, at a time when the city was covered with tobacco farms, mainly for the manufacture of snuff. A century later, Belmont had been divided into residential lots that filled with German and Irish immigrants. The Italians began to arrive in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, after which Arthur Avenue was christened the Bronx’s Little Italy, to distinguish it from Little Italy in Lower Manhattan.
The neighborhood spawned many illustrious residents in the 20th century, including actor Anne Bancroft, author Don DeLillo, and singer Dion Dimucci, whose group Dion and the Belmonts scored hits in the late 1950s, including a lament that asked the question, “Why must I be a teenager in love?” The play A Bronx Tale, later a movie directed by and starring Robert DeNiro, was set in the neighborhood. It is currently also a Broadway play.
Over the last 30 years, the neighborhood has come to also harbor Albanian, Puerto Rican, and Mexican communities, though dozens upon dozens of Italian shops and restaurants remain, becoming one of the borough’s principal tourist attractions. Where once Belmont was connected to the rest of the city via the Third Avenue elevated, that line was pulled down in 1973, isolating the neighborhood. Now the best way to get there is to take either Metro-North or the B or D trains to Fordham Avenue, and then transfer to an eastbound bus, disembarking at Hoffman Street.
The neighborhood is rife with dining options, from the expected red-sauce joints and sugar-dusted cannolis to more recent arrivals like savory Albanian pastries and Pueblan fare. Peppered along are some historic sights, and keep in mind that eating at every stop is not advised — save room for dinner, the big meal. Let’s take a stroll.
Snacks, shops, and sights
We begin our tour of Belmont on Arthur Avenue at 189th Street. Right at the corner find Tony & Tina’s Pizzeria (2483 Arthur Ave.). The minute you step inside, you’ll see the Albanian flag, a black double-headed eagle on a bright red background, and portrait of Mother Teresa, perhaps the most famous Albanian after John Belushi. The pizza here is quite good, but turn instead to the bureks, flaky Balkan pies cooked in the same stacked ovens as the pizzas. The best filling and one rarely found in the five boroughs is pumpkin, though the spinach, ground meat, and cheese pies are almost as good. Buy a cup of homemade yogurt for dipping.
Heading south on Arthur Avenue, you’ll hit Ciccarone Park a block away, named after a fallen World War I hero. Outfitted with tables and chairs, bathrooms, playground equipment, and bocce courts that can turn lively late on weekend afternoons, this will be your pit stop if you carry out food and need a place to eat it, or if you need a bathroom along the way, since you’ll never be more than a few blocks away from this park.
We next walk another block south to the corner of 187th and Arthur Avenue, which is the beating heart of Belmont. If you’re a vino Italiano enthusiast, Mt. Carmel Wines & Spirits (609 East 187th St.) is a must stop, if only for a browse. Three shelves alone are devoted to Tuscan varietals, with the cheapest being surprisingly low in price, though the most distinguished bottles sell for over $100.
Then dart across the street to Egidio Pastry Shop (622 East 187th St.), founded in 1912 and looking every year of its age, with worn wooden pastry cases, antique espresso machines, and tables topped with crazed black-and-white marble. Pause for an espresso to fuel up and a ricotta-filled sfogliatelle — or “lobster tail” for the English name, if you so choose.
If you want to take some fresh pasta home with you, stop by Borgatti’s Ravioli and Egg Noodles (632 East 187th St.), dating to 1935, when Italian immigrants Lindo and Maria Borgatti arrived and set up shop. Grab a box of ravioli, either big or small in square or round shapes. Stay on the same side of 187th street as you amble eastward so you can get a good view of the 1917 Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church (627 East 187th St.), started in a storefront on the same block in 1906, and the first church in the neighborhood to offer masses in Italian.
Lunch and strolling
Next is a major food stop, so loosen your belt a notch. Though a bit off the beaten track, Joe’s Italian Deli (685 East 187th St.) is a quintessential Italian institution. Hams and salamis hang from the ceiling, there’s a case offering more than eight types of olives, a counter where massive hero sandwiches are fabricated from a vast range of cold cuts, as well as hot items like chicken cutlets, meatballs, fried slices of eggplant, and fennel-scented sausages. Many deploy wonderful mozzarella made on the premises.
Now for an abrupt change in direction. In front of you as you exit Joe’s is Crescent Avenue, a three block thoroughfare that shows Belmont’s more bucolic side. Where Crescent dead ends into D’Auria-Murphy Triangle — where you can admire a Christopher Columbus bust (or perhaps try to topple it) — take a very abrupt right turn and head up Arthur Avenue in a northward direction.
First stop in this further west area is Calandra Cheese (2314 Arthur Ave.), a tiny storefront with plenty of free samples on the counter. The shop makes some of its own cheeses from curds brought fresh from its farm in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Ricotta and fresh mozzarella are good choices, but so are the less-ubiquitous basket cheese and Calabrese, a sheep’s-milk cheese that originated in Calabria, like the name says.
Dinner and a stop while you wait
Well, it’s do or die time for our tour of Belmont. Now is the point at which you might want to sit down for an old-fashioned, red-sauced Italian meal — wine, pasta, main course, cannoli, and all. Two mighty and aging institutions face off across the avenue, urging your patronage. Opened in 1919, Mario’s (2342 Arthur Ave.) is a little more elegant and expensive, with a menu that includes nearly every southern Italian dish you can think of, including seafood salad dressed with olive oil and spiedini alla Romana (like a deep fried cheese sandwich with red sauce).
Dominick’s (2335 Arthur Ave.) is more of a working class food hall, with trestle tables that seat several families at once, and waiters who recite only part of the menu and then tell you what to get. The emphasis is on big plates of well-sauced pasta, stuffed artichokes big enough to be shared, an antipasto that’s more meat than vegetables, and — the restaurant’s little secret — a giant sirloin steak charred on the outside but still bright red in the middle, served with wonderful french fries.
Put your name down at one, and while you wait, stroll next door to the Arthur Avenue Retail Market (2344 Arthur Ave.), a wonderfully graceless concrete structure that will nonetheless induce nostalgia.
It was opened in 1940 by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia with the express intent of getting pushcarts off city streets and into markets. Now this market is one of the few remaining (the old Essex Street Market in Manhattan recently relocated), fascinating in its ambiance and diversity. There you can get a freshly rolled cigar, dried pasta in dozens of permutations, a boutique brewed beer, gardening supplies, meats including offal, or a hero sandwich.
The best place to stop inside for a pre-dinner bite is Café al Mercato, a Sicilian snackery selling focaccia sandwiches, tripe soup, baked pastas, and other hot entrees. The café is utterly charming, and offers comfortable seating with the market bustling all around you. (Note that this café is closed on Sunday, though other parts of the market are open for business.) But dinner is coming, so you might want to save room.
Whichever place in Belmont you choose for a sit-down meal (if you choose one at all rather than just snacking), one of the must-stops on this tour is Madonia Brothers Bakery (2348 Arthur Ave.), a century-old mainstay famous for its breads, but also offering the city’s best cannoli. The secret of its success is that the pastry shells are filled with sweetened ricotta just before being sprinkled with powdered sugar and passed across the counter, so the shell doesn’t get soggy.
If at this point you have it in you for some more digestif sightseeing, proceed less than a block north to our last stop on this tour, likely just for a look at this point, across the intersection of 186th Street.
Right on the corner is Teitel Brothers (2372 Arthur Ave.), founded in 1915 by a pair of Jewish siblings (note the Star of David in the tiled entryway) with the intent of selling Italian staples like salamis, olive oil, canned tomatoes, cheese, and kitchenware. The store is a walk back in time, and still operated by the same family. Next door find the 1954 Vincent’s Meat Market (2374 Arthur Ave.), in the front window of which bunnies, whole pig heads, and halved baby lambs are often seen hanging, and many Italian meat preparations like steak pinwheels, braciole, stuffed pork chops, pig skin, oxtails, and cured soppressata sausages are available to take home.