The Bronx is full of surprises. Glued to my Hagstrom map, driving south of Pelham Parkway in search of a rumored Jamaican vegan joint, I stumbled on Morris Park Avenue. The seven-block row of Italian businesses reminded me of Arthur Avenue, though the storefronts date from a later era. In addition to an excellent butcher shop and decent salumeria, there are pizza parlors, bakeries, and social clubs galore—an alternative Little Italy virtually unknown to tourists or foodies.
I pulled over when Patricia’s appeared, a restaurant with a banner that brags about its wood-burning oven. The square dining room holds 12 tables with red-checked cloths, and at two on a weekday afternoon it was jammed with diners enjoying a leisurely lunch in the Italian manner. A Roman newscaster chattered on the TV, while enough cooks busied themselves in the open kitchen to convince me that the restaurant could make good on its lengthy and varied menu.
Though the bill of fare swings wildly between dishes associated with various regions of Italy, the majority are Neapolitan adaptations, representing an accretion of favorite recipes from several generations of Italian immigrants. Pastas play a crucial role, of course, reprising most of the standards: carbonara, boscaiola, puttanesca, Siciliana, Alfredo, Sorrentina, primavera, and arrabiata (meaning angry, not Arab). But though the Italian precursors probably utilized a broad range of quirky local ingredients and techniques, the current versions suffer from a certain sameness, so that too many might be described as well-cooked pasta awash in red sauce and melted cheese. The servings, however, are generous, and make a very satisfying meal ($7.95 to $10.95), together with the free salad, a basket that often includes several types of bread and focaccia, and a remarkable bowl of chile-and-garlic-flavored olive oil.
There’s more excitement in the invented pastas named after celebrities, many of which reflect modern notions about noodles. Frank Sinatra spaghetti is coated with a very light tomato sauce mobbed with capers, clams, and big fresh shrimp that pick up the vinegary tang of the capers. The 17th-century Neapolitan revolutionist Masaniello is assigned a rigatoni with disintegrating islands of ricotta floating in the sauce (messy-looking, but good-tasting), while Pavarotti gets shrimp and broccoli rabe tossed into his pasta tubes. Wood-oven pizzas come nicely charred and well outfitted. My favorite is the Calabrese ($14), named after the region at the spiked heel of Italy’s boot, where air-cured meats are a difficult-to-afford preoccupation. Appropriately enough, the pizza is topped with lots of soppressata and ham, in addition to green peppers and sharp black olives. The eight-slice Sicilian pizza ($13) is also a thing of beauty, with generous amounts of fresh mozzarella applied to the thick crust before the sauce is ladled on.
While the regular menu is mainly predictable, the daily hand-scrawl of specials actually is special. One day there was a wonderful veal osso buco ($16.95) sloughing tender well-browned meat into a concentrated Barolo wine sauce. On another occasion, the choice of eight dishes included a huge salad of octopus in a graceful light dressing ($9.95), and tripe Genovese ($7.95)—a magnificent heap of unskanky cow stomach, soft as a kid glove and richly sauced with tomato, bacon, onions, and canned peas. In northern Italy, “Genovese” usually refers to a dish made with pesto, but in Naples it means a braise of meat in white wine and onions, a recipe introduced to the city by Genoan merchants in the 17th century. Proving that, even back in Italy, names can be confusing.