Manhattan’s Little Italy may be disappearing, but up in the Bronx, an enclave of descendants from that southern European nation still leads a vibrant existence, turning out cured meats, freshly made cheeses, just-shelled clams, and filled-to-order canoli from a stretch of shopfronts along Arthur Avenue. And you won’t find the tourists here that fill the sidewalks downtown — most of the patrons of these spots are neighbors, and they speak Italian with shopkeepers while they pick up their groceries.
Giovanni Rana, an Italian baker who built an international tortellini and ravioli empire (you can pick up his pasta at Eataly and many other local grocery stores, and he is the patriarch of the family who owns Giovanni Rana Pastificio & Cucina in Chelsea Market), was in town last week, and so he ate with us along this row, offering his thoughts on what makes good cheese for pasta, how you know if you’re buying good bread, and why salami — all salami — is delicious.
Our first stop is a market stand on the street, where Mr. Rana points out the whole dried fish, a specialty in the Veneto region of Italy.
Next, we stop into Calandra’s (2314 Arthur Avenue, Bronx, 718-365-7572), a cheese shop that’s been operating since the 1930s. This spot makes its own mozzarella and ricotta, and it also imports Parmigiano-Reggiano from Italy (“Parmesan is from Wisconsin,” the proprietor tells us).
Mr. Rana is particularly impressed with the quality of the ricotta, which has a subtle flavor and creamy texture. Ideal, he says, for filled pasta like ravioli.
A few doors down is the Calabria Pork Store (2338 Arthur Avenue, Bronx, 718-367-5145), a 40-year-old temple to cured pig. Mr. Rana declares that he likes all forms of salami, which are numerous in Italy — each region has a specialty.
Here, we sample a sweet and spicy version before moving onto the aged coppa, which Mr. Rana praises for its depth before he declares the best assessments of meat like this are made when its accompanied by bread and wine.
We go in search of bread at Madonia Brothers Bakery (2348 Arthur Avenue, Bronx, 718-295-5573), which has serving the neighborhood for a century under three generations of the same family. The current proprietor Pietro is 89 years old, but he still makes a weekly stop by the shop on Mondays. Mr. Rana started baking bread when he was 13, before he ever became a pastamaker. You can tell good bread, he says, by its flexibility and aroma. Good bread should rise slowly, he adds.
Madonia also fills its own canoli to order.
On our way out the door, Mr. Rana also points out Friselle, a dry torus-shaped bread to which you add water and then top with olive oil, onions, and tomatoes. This is a typical Puglian snack, he says.
The Arthur Avenue Retail Market (2344 Arthur Avenue, Bronx, 718-295-5033) sits in the center of the stretch; it was founded by Mayor Laguardia, and it houses deli counters, cheese shops, and gelaterias as well as Arthur Avenue Casa Grande Cigars, which rolls cigars by hand.
Further back in the market, Mike’s Deli purveys its freshly made mozzarella. Here we get a demonstration in how to make the dairy product, which should be consumed as fresh as possible. First, the cheesemaker cuts the curd into slices.
Then he adds warm water to separate the curd.
As he pushes the cheese with a paddle, it begins to re-bind.
The cheese forms a stretchy mass.
Finally, he forms the freshly made mozzarella into tight balls by pushing the stretchy cheese through his fist.
No Italian meal would be complete without vino, so Mr. Rana leads us to Mt. Carmel Wine & Spirits (609 East 187th Street, Bronx, 718-367-7833), where Italian wines abound. While he likes reds from Masi and Quintarelli because he’s friends with the producers, he says he prefers white wine because he likes to think it’s not as strong (and, therefore, he can drink more). He recommends looking for Soave, Lugana, and Custoza, all wines from the Veneto.
We conclude with a plate of paccheri from Tra Di Noi (622 East 187th Street, Bronx, 718-295-1784) because, says Mr. Rana, pasta is the pinnacle of goodness. This one bears a spice-tickled tomato sauce and fresh basil.