Arthur Avenue and Little Italy Offer a Taste of Old-Fashioned Family Traditions
Mary Prenon | November 15, 2021
The mere mention of Arthur Avenue in the Bronx can often conjure up images of piping hot pasta with home-made tomato sauce, fresh colorful produce, crispy warm breads or rows of cannoli’s, stuffed with gooey cream and chocolate chips. Now part of the Belmont Business Improvement District (BID), this world-famous culinary destination has been home to Little Italy for generations and offers a taste of old-fashioned family traditions in this northern New York City borough.
“It’s definitely the food and restaurants that attract people to the area and keeps the local economy so vibrant,” said Frank Franz, Treasurer and former Chairman of the Belmont BID. “Little Italy brings in an enormous amount of business for such a small community, with people from the tri-state area as well as all over the world.”
Franz and current BID Chairman Peter Madonia founded the BID in 2012 to help the more than 300 local businesses by providing sanitation and maintenance, public safety, visitor services, marketing and promotional programs, beautification, capital improvements and other “quality of life” needs.
“A lot of people who own businesses here live here as well, and it’s a very safe community,” added Franz. “We have an extremely low vacancy rate for commercial real estate, and even during the height of the pandemic, business was thriving.”
The Belmont BID stretches from East Fordham Road at Southern Boulevard to Lorillard Place, and Arthur Avenue from East Fordham Road to East 183rd Street. It also includes East 187th Street from Southern Boulevard to Lorillard Place and Crescent Avenue from East 187th Street to Arthur Avenue.
Franz noted that people are always inquiring about the area for potential business locations. “It’s a great family neighborhood where our motto is ‘a good taste of tradition,’” he said. “Even today, I’m still buying my breads, desserts and meats at the same places my father shopped.”
In fact, Little Italy in the Bronx is often referred to as the “Real Little Italy,” and features some of New York City’s best authentic Italian restaurants, butchers, fish markets, delicatessens, pastry shops, artisan shops and specialty stores. Many local businesses are often owned and operated by generations of the same families who founded them nearly a century ago.
Madonia Bakery has been serving traditional Sicilian style bread since 1918 and Cosenza’s Fish Market celebrates its 101st anniversary this year. Established in 1912, the Egidio Pastry Shop is the oldest bakery in the neighborhood.
Dating back to the 1700’s, one of the Belmont neighborhood’s first businesses was a tobacco company started by French Huguenot Pierre Abraham Lorillard in 1760, and it’s still in operation today. The family also purchased a large piece of land along the Bronx River and built an estate named “Belle Mont.”
In 1870, the tobacco manufacturing facilities moved to New Jersey and Catherine Lorillard Wolfe, Pierre’s great granddaughter, inherited the estate. A great admirer of U.S. President Chester A. Arthur, Wolfe named the main street of the local community, “Arthur Avenue,” in his honor.
Over the past century, Belmont has become home to thousands of immigrants from Italy and all over the globe. The area has also served as an inspiration for movies like “Marty,” “A Bronx Tale,” “The Godfather,” and “The Sopranos.” Rumor has it that actor Joe Pesci began his career after being discovered by actor Robert DeNiro at a local neighborhood restaurant where Pesci worked as the maître d. Franz added that a number of celebrities are also known to dine in the area to escape the limelight of Manhattan and enjoy delicious authentic ethnic cuisine.
Franz noted that the area has about 6,000 residents, including seasonal Fordham University students. “It’s a very dynamic community, and part of Fordham Road as well as Third Avenue have been rezoned for retail and housing,” he said.
Irene Guanill, an agent with Century 21 Dawns Gold Realty in Yonkers, believes the new construction planned for Third Avenue could be mixed-use with retail on the first level and apartments above. “The market rate for rentals is based on the median income of the neighborhood, so rents may go for about $1,800 to $2,000 for a one-bedroom,” she said.
Home sales in the area are infrequent, she added, since so many people have been living in the area for such a long time. “It’s rare when things come on the market—nobody is trying to leave that neighborhood,” said Guanill. “It’s close to everything—great food, shopping, the New York Botanical Gardens, the Bronx Zoo and St. Barnabas Hospital.”
When homes do come up for sale, pricing is competitive, with two-family homes often garnering $700,000 to $800,000, and single-family homes, around $500,000. Guanill herself is a big fan of Little Italy, especially Gino’s Bakery. “No matter where you go, the food is just amazing. It’s no wonder people from all over come to eat there,” she said.
While best known for its Italian cuisine, the area now offers many different ethnic dining choices such as Mexican, Chinese, Albanian, Greek and more. The Clinton Hall Beer Garden is also a new neighbor, attracting those who want to try the latest craft beers.
Meanwhile, the Belmont BID is already gearing up for the holidays, kicking things off with the annual Christmas Tree Lighting event at Ciccarone Park later this month. During the weekends in December, singing groups dressed in Victorian garb will be found caroling through the streets, and of course, Santa is expected to show up as well.
“For me, this place has always been home,” Franz said. “I was born in the same house that my grandfather built, and I’ve been deeply rooted in the local community. This area will always have a special place in my heart.”