I play tennis weekly and usually get in my 10,000 steps hosting food tours, but the pounds can really sneak up when it’s literally your job to eat cheese. When it became clear that I needed to shed ten pounds with a diet that wouldn’t make my job a complete liability, I decided to eat like my grandparents did when they first arrived from Italy and lived on Arthur Avenue.
While meatballs and mozzarella may be synonymous with Italian food, the soul of Italian cooking is simple and healthy. In the early days of the Arthur Avenue Retail Market, most of the 114 pushcarts parked there sold vegetables. Italian immigrants ate meat very rarely until after World War II and decadent pastries like cannoli and sfogliatelle were rare and special treats reserved for holidays and special occasions. Paired with the calorie counting based program Noom, I am discovering yet another way to appreciate the bounty of what’s available to eat here in Bronx Little Italy.
In case you’re wondering, Noom is not paying me for this article.
Prosciutto & Melon
I was at Teitel Brothers when I overheard an older gentleman with an Italian accent talking about the beautiful cantaloupe he had at home. He said that that morning he could smell its sweetness through the rind and so he immediately got in the car to drive to Arthur Avenue and buy a pound of the very best prosciutto —slice-a-thin — to drape around the melon slices. His accent made me miss my grandparents who always considered fruit to be the very best dessert. I made my next stop Boiano’s, the fruit and vegetable stand inside the Arthur Avenue Retail Market. They were out of cantaloupe, but the vendor dropped a large, sweet-smelling honeydew melon into my outstretched arms like it was a newborn baby. I’ve been wrapping paper thin slices of prosciutto over melon for the past two weeks and intend to do so until the very last summer melons are gone.
Rome has the Colosseum, Venice has the Grand Canal, and Cilento, just east of the Amalfi Coast, has Italy’s healthiest food. "The Mediterranean Diet" originated in Cilento when American physiologist Ancel Keys was inspired to study the exceptional health and longevity of his neighbors there. My grandmother is from the Cilento and her always healthy, always delicious cooking was a product of tradition. The proprietors of Mount Carmel Foods reliably carry a selection of lentils, beans, chickpeas, and herbs grown deep in the countryside where organic farming and heritage varietals are the norm. It seemed ridiculous at first to spend $11 on a package of lentils, but I know the Cilento well — it’s where we host our food and wine tours. From the first bite, it was clear that I had never before tasted good quality lentils. Usually the ones I buy for a dollar or two in a Goya bag have a dusty texture and need a lot of salt to make them taste good. These lentils, boiled in water, were packed with flavor and needed little more than a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and some chopped cucumbers and parsley to make a deeply satisfying dinner salad.
Escarole and Beans
Somewhere, probably about 120 years ago, an immigrant from Naples earned a big wad of American dollars, and in the accent of his native city promptly nicknamed it shcarole. Escarole is a dark, leafy green vegetable that arrives with the late fall harvest. It’s rich in vitamins and Southern Italians love to eat it with beans and vegetable broth, sprinkled with a little red pepper and grated pecorino cheese. I’m pretty sure that if I eat shcarole and beans as frequently as my grandparents did, I’ll meet my goal weight much more quickly.
Not only does Teitel Brothers have the best prices on everything, you can get free advice from an accomplished chef if Mike Teitel happens to be behind the counter. He’s always happy to talk recipes and one of the many hidden treasures in his family’s 104-year old shop are small plastic containers of his homemade pesto. (Ask if you don’t see it in the refrigerator.) With a perfect balance of fresh basil, pine nuts, garlic and extra virgin olive oil from Tuscany (the Edda), I’ve been brushing it on top of oven roasted shrimp from Cosenza’s at least once a week.
Beneath the famous sausage chandelier at the Calabria Pork Store is a wide array of condiments from Calabria, the region at the toe of Italy’s boot where everyone loves spicy food. Peppers (along with tomatoes) were brought to the Italian peninsula in the 1600s from Mexico. Southern Italy, like the Central and South American colonies, were under the rule of Spain which is why spicy food proliferates in the south, but is non-existent in Northern Italian cooking.
There’s the Bomba Calabrese, a salsa of hot chili peppers which you can mix into a soup of spread on top of pretty much anything, but my favorite and most frequent purchase are the jars of Sicilian anchovies packed in salt and red peppers. I make open faced sandwiches with multi-grain bread from Addeo Bakers, a pile of arugula and two spicy anchovy fillets laid on top. I also mix the anchovies into the tomato sauce of the very diet friendly “eggs in purgatory”.
Cacio e Pepe
The first thing pretty much everyone says to me when I tell them I’m on a diet is, “oh you must be dying without pasta.” Actually, I’m enjoying pasta at least once a week and staying well within my calorie count. Pasta is not your enemy if you eat it the way Italians do in much smaller portions, with minimal, fresh sauces. Laying a piece of chicken breast on top of your pasta does not make it “healthy,” it just adds 250 calories.
Mangi Pasta, the newest restaurant in Bronx Little Italy focuses solely on pasta which is made fresh daily with semolina flour. Chef/Owner Aurora Cerrato makes all the sauces with no more than three or four ingredients, all of the highest quality. A plate of her cacio e pepe, the best you’ll find east of Rome, is just 510 calories, a totally reasonable lunch or dinner, especially if you’re hitting the gym that day. You can also buy her fresh semolina pasta and cook it at home, but please skip the jarred sauce. Instead prepare a raw tomato sauce or your make your own marinara with a jar of passata (tomato puree) and a leaf of basil or a little garlic or red pepper flake. A jar of commercially produced marinara sauce is basically just these ingredients plus a ton of sugar, salt and other preservatives.
It may be necessary to state that I am not a dietician, nutritionist or diet expert. This article is based on my personal experience using the structure of the Noom diet program. This essay does not contain any professional nutrition advice or endorsement.