This area was once farmland owned by the Lorillard family who moved their tobacco production from Lower Manhattan to the then pastoral Bronx which was part of Westchester County. Their estate was called "Belle Mont" in the Gilded Age fashion to give an Italianate name to a mansion. (Belle-mont meaning beautiful hill.) It sat on the hill that is today occupied by Saint Barnabas Hospital. By the 1870s much of the Lorillard farmland was being sold to the City or donated to what would become the hospital, the New York Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo. Catharine Lorillard Wolfe requested that the street that ran across the old Belmont Mansion be named after her favorite president, Chester A. Arthur thus christening Arthur Avenue.
In 1878 the IRT Third Avenue Line elevated train opened which sparked an influx of German and Irish immigrants to this developing part of the Bronx. The area became Italian enclave in the late 1890s specifically because of the stonemason and landscaping jobs that were newly available at the New York Botanical Garden (where a Lorillard family snuff mill remains) , the Bronx Zoo and the Jerome Park Reservoir. The Bronx was also a cleaner, more spacious place to live as opposed to the cramped conditions in the Italian enclaves in East Harlem and Mulberry Street.
Arthur Avenue became the main shopping district for Italians and the street was lined with pushcarts selling fruit, vegetables, imported olive oil, tomatoes and dried salt cod. In 1940 the Arthur Avenue Retail Market opened as a giant food hall, part of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia's mission to get vendors off the street and into more sanitary spaces. Originally there were 150 stalls. Today there are a dozens stalls including Peter's Meat Market, Mike's Deli and Liberatore's, the last of the original pushcart vendors, where you can buy Italian plants and seeds.
Little Italy in the Bronx is sustained by people who come back to "the old neighborhood" on weekends from their homes in Westchester, New Jersey, Long Island and Connecticut. On Saturday's especially, cars will pull up directly in front of Randazzo's or Cosenza's Fish Market so that shoppers can put their purchases directly into a cooler.
Though Italians mostly moved out of the neighborhood in the 1970s and 80s, the newer locals are nonetheless devoted to the Arthur Avenue shops. Students from nearby Fordham University will stumble into Tino's Delicatessen at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon where the Paciullo family lovingly serves them eggplant parm sandwiches.
Immigrants from Mexico work in many of the shops and maintain and revere Italian food culture as it shares many similarities with their own. As such, Mexican restaurants are popping up all over the area from inexpensive taco places that also feed the hungry college kids to sit-down restaurants like Estrellita Poblana where everything is fresh and regional. You'll also see many eastern European restaurants and grocery stores including the lovely Prince Street Coffee which is the only American outpost of a popular cafe in Kosovo.
Chazz Palmintieri's one-man show turned movie turned Broadway musical A Bronx Tale is the most famous story about Arthur Avenue. The 1955 Academy Award winning film Marty starring Ernest Borgnine was shot inside of Oteri's Meat Market, owned by Danielle Oteri's great-grandfather. The shop remains a butcher shop now owned by Peter DeLuca and called Vincent's Meat Market. Doo-wop was heard on the street corners of the Bronx. Dion DiMucci and his friends were among the singers who went on to fame as Dion and the Belmonts.
Author Don DeLillo grew up in Belmont as did Anne Bancroft. Joe Pesci was discovered and given his big break in acting while working as a waiter at Amici's Restaurant.