“You walked from the subway? Did you come with a SWAT team?”
Jack was trying to be funny, I think, playing on the reputation of the South Bronx as dangerous. I was in his shop, DeCicco Brothers, on Arthur Avenue, where in true Italian style I had been embraced and welcomed as part of the family within about fifteen minutes of rocking up. There was no mistaking he was proud of his Italian heritage: the shop was packed with the distinctive blue of the national team’s football kit and piles of T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “I’m Italian, I can’t keep calm”. Low rise and lined with trees, this characterful street at the heart of Little Italy had more in common with leafy Greenwich Village than a gang-infested no-go zone.
The Bronx has had a hard time shaking off its bad boy reputation. “The Bronx is burning” was a phrase coined in 1977 by the media (rather than sports commentator Howard Cosell to whom the phrased is wrongly credited). It referred to the many fires that burned that summer when ageing housing stock combined with closures of firehouses had horrific consequences. The closure in 1973 of the 3rd Avenue El, New York City’s last elevated railway, and the completion of urban planner Robert Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway a year earlier, had fractured a community. The social and economic problems that were to follow resulted in a reputation that’s been difficult to shift.
New York has a long history of Italian immigration. Between the 1870s and the 1920s, around 5 million Italians, the majority from the Mezzogiorno, came to the USA and around a third never made it any further than New York’s five boroughs. Little Italy in Manhattan, now a shadow of its former self, retains a smattering of restaurants that fool only the most gullible of tourists into thinking they are in a genuine Italian-American neighbourhood. In truth, the Italians have long since moved away and the area is gradually being assimilated into Chinatown. According to some reports, the 2010 census doesn’t record a single Italian-born individual living in this part of the city.
Little Italy in the Bronx, in contrast, is thriving, a tiny oasis of cor-fee and mozzarella and prosciutto packed into a few streets of the Belmont district. At Tino’s Delicatessen I sipped a cinnamon-scented cappuccino in the company of four elderly gentlemen, their faces lined and puffy from years of pasta and hard living. Despite the warm November sunshine, they were heavily wrapped up against the elements. Pausing occasionally to apologise for the profanities which escaped their lips, they put the world to rights as they probably did every morning. I’m not sure what they made of me, an outsider.
A few doors further down Arthur Avenue, Jack DeCicco’s father Tony wandered in off the street and was keen to share his story. Together with his wife, he had arrived from Napoli in 1969 and had been in Little Italy ever since. He was immensely proud of his neighbourhood and took me to some of his favourite haunts: the Casa Della Mozzarella around the block on 187th Street, described by one Brooklynite as “oral dairy porn” and Vincent’s Meat Market, where row upon row of sausage and salami hang like chandeliers from the ceiling. The area is a foodie’s paradise, where everything from salt cod to handmade ravioli can be bought today just as it has been for decades.
In a city that likes to reinvent itself and in a borough where so much was destroyed, there’s something comforting about the number of businesses that were founded at turn of the last century rather than the current one. Go and see for yourself – no SWAT team required.