I will never forget the first time my father came home from a shopping spree on Arthur Avenue, the great Italian market street in the Bronx, just northeast of Manhattan. It was as if he'd witnessed a miracle. His face was almost beatific as he unpacked the bargain-priced treasures he'd collected: a plump pullet, frilly puntarella (a chicory-like root much prized in central Italy), fresh bread with airholes the size of a child's fist, and bags of golden raisins.
A creature of habit, Dad has shopped the avenue every Friday morning since that first visit, about a decade ago. (Before marketing in the Bronx, for years he'd made forays to Manhattan's Ninth Avenue, but that street has gradually lost its Italian character.) Now, whenever I can, I join him on his trips to Arthur Avenue. I love following him through his routine, not only for what I learn about the food, but for what I learn about being Italian.
My father, Ed Giobbi, an artist and self-trained cook, helped to emancipate Italian food in America from the tired old clichés of chicken parmigiana and spaghetti and meatballs when he published his Italian Family Cooking (Random House, 1971). Dad was born in Connecticut, but his people hail from the region of Le Marche, east of Umbria, at the end of the ancient Roman salt road to the Adriatic—and he takes an enormous amount of pride in his Italian heritage.
His father, Achille Giobbi, was born in Offida, Italy, and came to the U.S. in 1905. But it was as if he had never really left the old country. Italian was spoken at home; Achille loved to grow his own vegetables and was skilled at making his own wine. Dad went to Italy after college and studied art there for four and a half years; while perfecting his Italian, he also collected a lot of recipes. By the time he came back to New York, he had romanticized the whole Italian experience, sharing his vision with the rest of the country—and, of course, with me.
My father continued his father's tradition. The home where I grew up, in Katonah, New York—with chickens, rabbits, and a garden full of vegetables in the summer and prosciutti hanging in the barn in the winter—was about as close to an Italian family farm as America can come. Inevitably, it began to seem too much like an Italian family farm to me, but after the obligatory period of rebellion, my interest in the dishes of my youth was reawakened. By the time my own first child was born, in 1991, I had started to re-create the family dinners of my childhood—and visiting Arthur Avenue with my father led me to the rediscovery of my Italian roots.
Arthur Avenue is lined with nondescript tenement apartments, two- and three-family homes, and commercial buildings that reflect classic Italian-American urban ticky-tacky. But though the street may look a bit down-at-the-heels, it's alive with activity: Shops spill out into the street, with foodstuffs, crockery, and knickknacks piled up on makeshift bleachers. A deli owner packs his Cadillac with cheeses as a young man in butcher's whites totes a quarter of a cow's carcass down the avenue on his shoulder. Grandpas sit at outdoor cafés sipping espresso macchiato and reading Il Giornale, while grandmas with complicated braids argue over the dates of baptisms and weddings held a generation ago. Arthur Avenue is really a lot like Italy, but without the ancient architecture and modern motor scooters.
Indeed, the main drag contains what is perhaps the greatest concentration of authentic Italian food merchants east of the Mississippi. More than 200 Italian businesses—most of them food-related—are packed into seven blocks. It's an oasis of hearty European-style living smack in the middle of a borough racked by poverty and crime.
Over the last few years, my father, who loves to speak Italian, has befriended numerous merchants along Arthur Avenue. The first time I tagged along, he took great pleasure in telling each shopkeeper "Lei ha nata in Firenze [She was born in Florence]." "Brava!" was the standard response—a congratulation to which I hardly felt entitled. But ethnic pride runs deep in this community of 10,000 Italian-Americans, and I was thrilled to fit in. Now, while Dad talks to his peers, the old geezers who founded the shops, I chat with the next generation, the men and women of my own age who have gone into the family business. (The very fact that so many sons and daughters are staying on in the family store is a sign of Arthur Avenue's continuing vitality.)
Whenever Dad and I shop together, we invariably meet at Café al Mercato. This divey little slice of Italy, with its plastic tablecloths and its perfect pizzette topped with broccoli and olives, is located in the 10,000-square-foot indoor market that is the very epicenter of Arthur Avenue. Opened in 1940 by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia—as part of his citywide plan to abolish the informal pushcart market stalls that were cluttering New York City's streets—the market is home to about fifteen stands today. (There were once about a hundred.) Around the perimeter are businesses like Mike's Deli and Mount Carmel Gourmet Food Shop, and in its center is a green maze of vegetable stands, exhibiting not just the usual seasonal fare—at this time of year including potatoes, onions, peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, and corn—but also unanticipated delicacies like speckled cranberry beans and tiny white Italian eggplants.
My father and I plan menus while we shop. Today, for instance, we start by purchasing beautiful wild cauliflower mushrooms, as large and floral as pieces of coral, at Joe Liberatore's 61-year-old stand. As we walk on, my father says, "Do you remember the mushrooms that grew under the maple tree in Katonah? I couldn't identify them. Every fall for years I wondered about those mushrooms. Then I figured, if I'm going to go, it might as well be from a poisonous mushroom." I'm shocked to discover that he's been fooling around with potentially fatal fungi, but he assures me that they were delicious, particularly served in a sauce over medallions of veal. (When we get back to his house later, we cut the cauliflower mushrooms into meaty slices, sauté them, and then add them to a tomato sauce for a robust fall pasta dish.) We also buy plum tomatoes and fresh cranberry beans for soup, and bunches of broccoli rabe, packed with blossoms, to sauté with garlic and hot pepper.