Monday, September 12, 2005

Grandmotherless Bronx - New York City entry #5

When I was growing up in Manhattan, visiting the Bronx was a family matter. Yes, I would go to Yankee Stadium to sneak into box seats when the ushers weren’t looking. Yes, I went to high school in Riverdale at a rather chichi private school (since it was all-male, perhaps hee-hee is more apt).

But the reason to visit the Bronx was to see my grandmothers, one on the Grand Concourse and one on Jerome Avenue. My father, the son of my granny on Jerome, used to describe the attacks of the Italian kids across the street on the guiltless and guileless Jewish youth, circa 1927. The accounts provided a frisson of danger, even ten-year old Jews were at risk from childhood-fascists. Yet, while he narrated his strongly-felt childhood traumas, I suspected that there was more subtle class politics involved than his memories of innocence and attack suggested. (In Manhattan the strict Italian-Jewish culinary boundary was Canal Street; Little Italy to the north, Chinatown to the south).

Given the frequency with which we visited the Bronx, I am abashed to admit that not only did I never visit Arthur Avenue, but I never heard of it, despite its proximity to Fordham Road on which I spent so much time. Such was ethnic boundaries prior to immigration reform.

Eventually other ethnic transitions made their presence felt, and while we value the culinary treasures left in their wake, my grandmothers - and their yiddishe generation - left their urban redoubts to more comforting locales. Age multiplies fear.

This Sunday, after more than half a century, I visited Arthur Avenue, today less a neighborhood than a thematic shopping mall, unlike what it would have been in 1927 or even 1957.

While there are many restaurants on Arthur Avenue, Dominick’s has a special appeal. The restaurant has the feel of a church rec room with plastic paneling, long wooden tables, covered with long plastic tablecloths. Today was a particularly busy Sunday; along the street (on September 11th, no less) the neighbors were celebrating the 8th Annual Ferragosto festival, a lively, but lesser version of Little Italy’s feast of San Gennaro.

I was seated with two attractive women, returning to the old neighborhood, talking about family, friends, and, because this is New York, real estate. Each was surely blessed as grandma by a troop of fortunate moppets. One had close ties with Dominick’s staff (there was a fair amount of hugging of which I was not included), and so we received superior service on this busy afternoon.

Myra Alperson in her useful Nosh New York describes visiting Dominick’s, asking if they had anything “light” for lunch. She received the marvelous deadpan New York reply, “water.” She adds, seemingly without irony, “I went elsewhere.” I can imagine my mom doing the same. But what better advertisement could there be. Dominick’s does not have a menu, and one negotiates with the waiter as to what he thinks you might like and when the bill comes you learn what the traffic might bear. My large lunch (salad, veal, pasta, baked clams, and wine - no dessert was served) came to $41.00, but I have no idea if I received a discount thanks to my tablemates or whether this was more injustice to the Jews.

Dominick’s food is an experience, not a text. We began with bread as clean and thick as fresh Italian bread should be (with just a hint of salt). The salad was a mix of iceberg, romaine, tomato, olives, and onion in an excess of good olive oil and vinegar (not that northern chichi Balsamic stuff either). The pasta (a small rigatoni, whose name I don’t know, but not the elbows I had at grandma’s) was cooked as properly al dente in a bath of very tomato sauce. The veal parmigiano was layered with some fine mozzarella. If this calf was never fed milk, it gave its painful life for a happy diner. The bread coating on the clams was a bit heavy by downtown standards, but they were plump and juicy and the garlicky sauce could not have had more butter.

As I waddled out, I decided to make the walk that I never had as a teen, up the hill from Belmont. The walk wasn’t long - and today offers a range of restaurants inconceivable a half-century ago. Within about a quarter-hour I was at Fordham and the Grand Concourse. Fifteen minutes and fifty years to reach the old neighborhood.

2335 Arthur Avenue
Bronx, New York
718-733-2807 (closed Tuesday)

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