The trouble with eating Italian food is three or four days later you’re hungry again – George Miller
Walking around Arthur Avenue in the Bronx with John Mariani is like touring the Vatican with the Pope. Eating there with him is even more fun.
For the uninitiated, Arthur Avenue is the only real “Little Italy” of New York left. The one in Manhattan is but a shell of its former self — having been overrun by bridge-and-tunnel folks long ago. Today, it is nothing (with a few exceptions) but multiple blocks of multiple tourist traps serving abysmal Italian food that would be right at home in Las Vegas .
Arthur Avenue is different. A real neighborhood of leafy, shaded streets containing businesses with a heavy Italian accent that still cater to customers who have been coming here since before WWII. This is a street of artisans. Of cheese and sausage makers. Of real butchers and handmade pasta.
And of course, restaurants. Not dozens of paltry pasta parlors lined back to back, but of family-owned restaurants like Mario’s, which have, since 1919, catered to a clientele of capos and paisans and just plain folks who want Neapolitan food the way their grandmas made it.
Since Mario’s isn’t someplace most of ELV’s readers can pop into tomorrow night, rather than rhapsodising about the rapini, we at ELV thought a few thoughts about what makes it so good, and so different from our red sauce-dreck, was in order.
First came the pizza. A simple margherita pizza. A good, blistered crust tasting of good bread, fresh tomatoes and a smattering of fresh mozz. That’s it…and that’s all it needed to be.
Next, an antipasto platter that would feed a family of four for two days. Good crisp, lightly battered and fried calamari, eggplant “Siciliana” wrapped around fresh ricotta, clams oreganate fresh from the sea, and of course, roasted peppers. At that point The Food Gal® was full, but host, owner and keeper of the flame Joe Migliucci was just getting started.
As The Pope of Arthur Avenue gave his benediction, in successive order began a procession of pastas the likes of which you will not encounter west of the Hudson River. Cavatelli in a fresh tomato sauce was a revelation. Not the lumpy, thrown together, watery stuff that passes for fresh tomato sauce by too many chefs, but a smooth, simmered sauce that brought forth a tomato-y kapow! – elevating the hand-rolled, al dente cavatelli without overwhelming it. You find me a smooth, rich, intense tomato sauce in Las Vegas, and I’ll find you Rao’s.
Before the food coma set in, we recall penne in a rich meat sauce, a definitive eggplant parm, pillow-light gnocchi in a spinach/Gorgonzola sauce, and spaghetti formaggio (pictured above), made table-side by Signor Migliucci in a hollowed out Parmigiana Reggiano wheel — so sharply flavored with cheese, then mellowed out by an cupful of flamed brandy, that we couldn’t stop gorging on it….even after the five preceding courses!
What separates a meal like this from so many mediocre ones is that sharpness of flavor, and the sense you get from the moment you walk into the place (a sense that’s confirmed in bite after bite), that your food is being made by hand, and with respect for the history behind it.
To paraphrase what readers “Carmine” and “Don” posted a week or so ago (when ELV was griping about another lousy Italian meal): “There is nothing difficult about Italian-American food, but it needs to be made with good ingredients and with a passion for what’s being cooked.” Too many times, in too many places that aren’t Mario’s on Arthur Avenue in da Bronx, it is cooked with neither.
A couple of fun facts about Mario’s: It was supposed to be included in a scene in The Godfather, but the family refused, thinking it might be bad publicity(!). It is, however, mentioned in the movie (we seem to recall in the scene where Clemenza is setting up the meeting for Michael to shoot the cop). In recent years, an episode of The Soprano’s was shot there….and a picture of James Gandolfini posing with the Migliuccis is proudly displayed on their website.
We at ELV think they should have one of Pope Mariani IX displayed there too.
2342 Arthur Avenue
Bronx, New York