It’s midnight on a Monday night, and the walls of Fratelli’s Pizza Café are thumping with the music from the Hunts Point Triangle strip club next door. John Fratelli is kneading dough for pepperoni rolls and leafing through Forbes between fielding orders from the wholesale market workers. (“Hey, John! Send over a pie at 1:30, willya?”) Sometimes, John says, strippers from next-door come by for whole lasagnas. “I don’t know how they do it!” he says. “They eat a whole lasagna and then dance all night!” He clutches his stomach and laughs.
Restaurants in Hunts Point cater to the people who work hard slinging fish and breaking down sides of meat (and stripping). Manhattan might be the restaurant capital of the world, but it’s actually this South Bronx neighborhood that is essential to the way we eat. Whether you’re picking up broccoli at D’Agostinos, or enjoying a porterhouse at Peter Luger, much of the fresh food you buy has passed through the wholesale markets in Hunts Point.
The Hunts Point food-distribution center is the largest wholesale food market in the world. It’s made up of three entities—meat, fish, and produce markets—that supply restaurants and supermarkets throughout the country. Thousands of employees at the market work through the night to ship food to the sleeping city.
The market sits on a desolate South Bronx peninsula jutting into the East River. Planes from LaGuardia take off directly across the water and roar low overhead. The neighborhood feels remote from Manhattan, but it’s vital to the city.
Although the market is large, it’s often startlingly old-fashioned; many of the companies at Hunts Point are small and family-owned. And although the neighborhood looks gritty, it often feels like a small town. Guys just off work wave out their car windows to each other, and when they stop by a nearby restaurant, the person behind the counter already knows what they want.
“It’s a blue-collar job engine,” says produce market co-president Matthew D’Arrigo, of D’Arrigo Bros. Co. “Thousands of guys come through—customers, drivers and workers . . . you’ve got a real hardworking-man kind of mentality.” That intricate infrastructure of moving food in and out, 24 hours a day, makes for a lot of hungry people. So where are the best places to eat in the neighborhood that feeds the city?
Fratelli’s Pizza Café is justifiably famous for its broccoli-rabe hero. The sautéed broccoli rabe has a sheen of olive oil and comes on a soft roll, studded with golden-brown cloves of garlic. John, Joey, and Mario, the three Fratelli brothers, learned to cook from their immigrant parents. Fratelli’s hours are the same as the wholesale market’s: open continuously from midnight on Sunday until midnight on Friday; closed on weekends.
According to Mario, who works midnight to noon, there are a number of advantages to this arrangement. For one thing, he’s able to make long-simmered stocks and tomato sauces, because there’s always someone there to tend it. And being so enmeshed with his suppliers is also a good thing: “We get everything from the market,” he says, “and the workers there order from us, so they make sure I get the best product at a good cost.”
D’Arrigo, who supplies Fratelli’s with its broccoli rabe, and who eats there often, says: “It doesn’t hurt, that’s for sure, being right across the street.”
Hunts Point used to have a reputation as one of the most dangerous places in the city. But this area, like the rest of the city, has gotten considerably tamer over the years.
Nick Papamichael, the owner of Sugar Ray’s Café, a 24-hour greasy spoon and doughnut shop next to Fratelli’s, has plenty to say about the neighborhood. “They’ve really clamped down on the hookers,” he says. “If you see a good-looking hooker, just say ‘Officer, I’m lost!’ And if they have teeth? Then you know they’re undercovers.”
Sugar Ray’s, named after Nick’s dearly departed bulldog, does a brisk business in egg-and-cheese sandwiches and strong, sugary coffee. This may not be the best place to eat, but it’s a great spot to sit with a cup of coffee and people-watch. Early one morning, on the day after the Texas and Ohio primaries, a table of guys are eating doughnuts and discussing the state of the produce business, while Nick—who seems to be the de facto mayor of the block—busts his customers’ chops.
“What happened to your man Obama?” he asks a black patron.
“He’s not my man!” the fellow protests. “Hillary’s my man.”
“Hillary’s everyone’s man,” Nick grumbles.
Meanwhile, there’s a commotion outside: A guy has double-parked his car, and a cop is about to write him a ticket. “Can’t I get my coffee?” the man shouts. Nick sticks his head out the door. “What is this, a crackdown? Let him come in and get his coffee!” The cop bends over, laughing, and waves the customer on.
“Like I need this aggravation,” Nick says. “If they could be bribed, I’d bribe them.” The only kickbacks the traffic cops will take these days are free coffee and doughnuts.
Market Kitchen, a relative newcomer, is just across the street from Sugar Ray’s and Fratelli’s. Owner Stephen Ezell grew up in the South Bronx before decamping for hospitality school at UC Berkeley and then working for Manhattan restaurateur Donatella Arpaia at both Dona and Anthos.
“I hand-pick our produce, fish, and meat from the market,” Stephen says. “We get the same fish as Le Bernardin, but we can negotiate and barter.”
The food here is more upscale than any other place in the area, but it’s still seriously hearty. There’s the Kitchen Sink sandwich, roast beef with french fries on Texas toast, and the Frank’s Filthy sandwich, which combines barbecued chicken and mac-and-cheese—an item that presumably wouldn’t have flown at Anthos.
Stephen makes his French toast sticks by cutting stale challah into batons, soaking them in orange custard, and then rolling them in cornflakes before browning each one on the griddle. “That’s for a guy who wants French toast, but doesn’t have time to sit down,” he says.
And where else does Stephen eat in the neighborhood? He suggests Randall Restaurant, a Spanish-American place, and Mo Gridder’s BBQ, the barbecue truck that parks just up Hunts Point Avenue.
At Mo Gridder’s, the ribs are toothsome, porky, and lacquered with a spiced, brown-sugary barbecue sauce. Mo Gridder’s “customer lounge” is actually the waiting room of Hunts Point Auto Sales and Service, where you can listen to the mechanics shoot the breeze or peruse The Bronx in the Innocent Years, which sits on the table.
I order stewed goat and pernil from the counter at Randall Restaurant and can barely lug my overloaded plate to a table. The goat is tough and gristly, but the pernil is fantastic, with big shards of crunchy pork skin. The roomy but spartan restaurant is mostly populated with police officers and bus drivers in uniform, all eating similarly enormous plates of rice, beans, and meat.
By chance, I come upon La Misma Nelly Coffee Shop, sandwiched between two auto-repair shops, tiny and easy to miss. (It’s just down the street from the very democratic Mr. Wedge strip club, with a weekly dance contest that welcomes all comers.)
The place has a small steam table, behind which the Dominican owner dishes up orders for the market workers as they trickle in. I have a bowl of yellow rice and bacalao (salt cod stew), which costs exactly $3 and features lovely, firm bits of salt cod mingled with soft, cooked-down tomato and red pepper. It’s the best thing I’ve eaten yet.
“You gotta come Friday for the camarones!” a friendly patron tells me. I think I will. For that and for the dance contest, of course.