Look up and down Arthur Avenue today and imagine the streets filled not with parked cars, but pushcarts overflowing with vegetables, tins of imported olive oil and cans of tomatoes. Imagine the the pungent smells of dried salt cod and vinegar soaked peppers and the staccato sounds of shoppers haggling with pushcart vendors in Italian, but also Neapolitan, Sicilian and other dialects of Southern Italy. Deliveries dispatched from the horse stables right near the corner of Arthur Avenue and 187th Street would start early in the morning and continue on all day.
This is what Arthur Avenue, the heart of the Belmont neighborhood, looked like before 1940.
The Pushcart Era
Pushcarting began in the Jewish neighborhoods of the Lower East Side in the 1860s. Little money or English was required to start a pushcart. Immigrants living in cramped neighborhoods liked the pushcart vendors where they could buy food at the lowest possible prices right on the street. Other residents despised the noise and sanitation issues the pushcarts created.
Mayor Fiorello Laguardia initiated the building of five indoor market places in immigrant neighborhoods with help from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The mayor, son of an Austro-Hungarian Jewish mother and a Northern Italian father, had worked as an interpreter at Ellis Island while in law school. The Arthur Avenue Retail Market was the only one in the Bronx. There was also the Park Avenue Market in East Harlem which became famously known as La Marqueta and the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side.
"The Department of Public Works filed yesterday plans for a two story public market on the east side of Arthur Avenue, 125 feet south of 186th Street, in the Bronx. The proposed building, 50 by 173.6 feet, will cost $126,000 and will be erected from plans by W. and G. Platt, architects." March 1, 1940, The New York Times
The Arthur Avenue Retail Market Opens
Just eight months later, the Arthur Avenue Retail Market opened with 117 pushcart vendors now inside, concentrating all the energy of the streets into one large space with a skylight overhead. The rent was $4 a month and only the butcher and the fishmonger could have more than a 6' x 7' stall. A consequence of the new markets was that pushcart peddling became illegal which angered immigrants who now had to pay a higher price for food now that the peddlers turned merchants now had to pay rent to the city.
Though Arthur Avenue was populated almost entirely by immigrants, American citizens were given first priority for a spot in the new Retail Market which helped a young man named Joe Liberatore get his spot. Though he was raised in Villa Sant'Angelo in the Abruzzo region of central Italy, Joe had been born in Middletown, Connecticut. In that era, Italians frequently traveled back and forth across the Atlantic, working on short-contract building projects including the New York City subway. While many worked to bring their entire families to the United States, many more saved money to return and live a better life in Italy. Joe was seventeen when he returned to the United States with his father (his mother stayed behind in Italy). He worked 16-hour days selling vegetables from his pushcart and barely scraping a living together.
The Market solidified Arthur Avenue as the commercial hub of the neighborhood for the future. It struggled in the 1960s and 70s and in the 1980s, the City threatened to shut it down for good. A cooperative of sixteen shopkeepers was formed to keep the Market going. There was some renovation and an HVAC system added thanks to the merchants who manage the Market today though the property is still owned by New York City. Only one of the original pushcart vendors remained; Joe Liberatore, who officially retired when he turned 65, but revamped his stall to sell seeds from Italy, potted plants and herbs and seasonal items such as palm crosses for Easter.
Today there are twelve merchants, each of which serves a different function in order to create a one stop shopping experience under one roof. Of course, there’s much more to Little Italy in the Bronx, but if you have only a short time to visit Belmont, this should be your first stop.
What’s inside the Arthur Avenue Retail Market
In order from the entrance at 2344 Arthur Avenue
Grab a coffee at the bar just like an Italian at Chef Gennaro Martinelli’s Italian coffee bar at the Market’s entrance.
Liberatore’s Garden of Plenty (front left)
UPDATE: LIBERATORE’S CLOSED IN SUMMER 2018.
The wooden wheel on the display stand is an homage to this stall's history as among the very first pushcart vendors to move inside the Arthur Avenue Retail Market. Seeds from Italy are always popular such as seasonal items like rosemary trees at Christmas time and crosses made from dried palms for Palm Sunday and Easter. Richard Liberatore keeps up his father's legacy and often shares his story with curious tourists.
La Casa Grande Cigars (front center)
Watching the cigar rolling artisans at work is a major attraction inside the Arthur Avenue Retail Market. Since 1997 this spot officially serves as the factory for La Casa Grande Cigars. They also travel to parties for live rolling demonstrations as well as cigar classes. Step inside the cigar room for a look at their full line of products.
Peter’s Meat Market (middle right)
Vegetarians, avert your gaze, the counter at Peter’s Meat Market leaves nothing to the imagination. Very high quality meat and personal service is paired with brains, hooves and liver in the display case. Owners Michael Rella and Peter Servedio have been working hard behind the counter since 1970 with impeccable butchering and friendly service offered in English and Italian. While everything here is good, they're especially known for their cuts of veal osso buco.
Bronx Beer Hall (middle center)
Have a seat right in the middle of the famous Arthur Avenue Retail Market. This spot is super popular with tourists and Fordham students and serves locally brewed beers as well as sandwiches from Mike's Deli and pizza from Café al Mercato. A great place to relax mid-shopping trip.
Mount Carmel Foods (middle left)
Anything you need for your panty can be found at this Italian food treasure box. Here you can find high quality dried pastas from Italy including Rustichella d’Abruzzo and Gragnano, Vialone Nano rice for the perfect lemon risotto, capers from the Sicilian island of Pantelleria and the most flavorful dried hazelnuts you can imagine. Behind the counter are countless speciality items from Italy including spices, candied fruits and olive oils. Don't be afraid to ask for help.
Also look for biscuits and cookies from Italy, olive oil soaps, Italian sodas and a full range of real San Marzano tomatoes from the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Everything here is high quality so don’t worry about picking the wrong thing. Pick up some fresh cavatelli made daily or the delicious homemade pepperoncini spread.
This is also your best source for gluten-free Italian food imported directly from Italy. From polenta and chick pea and chestnut flour, to excellent gluten-free pasta from Gragnano, gluten-free cookies and even gluten-free panettone at Christmas, Mount Carmel Foods has the best selection of senza glutine products.
Mike’s Deli (back right)
Mike’s is the most famous spot on Arthur Avenue with owner David Greco (son of Mike) having achieved Food Network fame when his eggplant parm beat out Bobby Flay’s in a popular episode of Throwdown. In 1995 Marco Greco (also Mike's son) premiered an excellent one-man Off-Broadway play called Behind the Counter with Mussolini about working at his father's deli. The sign from Mike's Deli can also been as part of the set of Broadway's A Bronx Tale Musical.
David Greco can often be found showing groups from the big tour bus companies how to pull mozzarella. This very busy spot is most famous for its named (and enormous) sandwiches, the most recent one being the "Donald Trump All American Sandwich" with a pile of deep fried shoestring potatoes for his hair.
Boiano's (back middle)
The vegetables that spill out in the center of the Market belong to Boiano’s. If you can’t find what you need, the owners are reliably found right near the back doors of the Market facing Hughes Avenue. Look for fava beans in the spring and figs in the fall.
Cafe Al Mercato (back left)
Ralph Esposito is at the helm of this Italian diner in the corner of the Market. Her serves excellent slices of Sicilian pizza which appears like a slice of focaccia bread with a thin layer of cheese with tomato sauce on top. They have plenty of tables where you can sit down and enjoy a potato and egg frittata in the morning or a more elaborate sandwich of sausage, peppers and broccoli rabe in the afternoon. Ralph also happens to make the best cappuccino in Little Italy. He uses ground-to-order Caffe Mauro, foams the milk by hand and adds a perfect dusting of cinnamon.