Uh-oh: The sometimes despised and always intrepid food critic John Mariani tackles the “nasal” and “conspiratorial promotion of Brooklyn” and its food scene in Eat Like a Man at Esquire by telling all readers to visit the Belmont area of the Bronx. “The fact is,” writes Mariani, “just one square mile of the Bronx, known as the Belmont neighborhood, has more food culture and history than Red Hook, Williamsburg, and Dumbo combined.” What a cool idea that is. Too bad it’s not even remotely true.
The earliest Bronx settlers set up shop by the river in 1639 in the area now known as Mott Haven, while the land that became Belmont, like much of the Bronx at the time, was still pretty rural and underdeveloped. What’s now Arthur Avenue was, up until the late nineteenth century, one tiny part of a vast estate belonging to the Lorillard family, whose tobacco innovations led to Newports and other cigarette brands. It was the wave of Italian immigrants that arrived after who kickstarted what’s been some 140 years of “food culture and history.”
Not to get too technical, but Red Hook has been an active shipping area since the mid-1600s and Williamsburg has been going more or less strong as hell since the late seventeenth century. Throw in Dumbo, which, sure, has only recently has become a residential area with the addition of shops, bars, and restaurants, and now you’ve got yourself a much broader geographical area representing some combined 600 years of history and food culture. Here are some highlights: millions of oysters, warehouses filled with smoked fish, bars serving regional Norwegian food, butter-boiled pilot biscuits dropped in rum, enormous meatballs, flagons of mead, miles of cold cuts, gallons of shmaltz, hot empanadas, cold slop, and some downright terrific fusion restaurants.
Yes, there should definitely be more dispatches from Queens and the Bronx, as Mariani points out. Everyone should make a point to try the lard bread at Madonia Bakery and visit Cosenza’s Fish Market for half-shell clams, or save up for the deluxe treatment at Roberto. It’s admirable for Mariani to put the 86-year-old Ann and Tony’s up there, along with the pies at Zero Otto Nove, and for him to give a shout to the newly opened Bronx Beer Hall inside the Arthur Avenue market.
But to say that the borough and its food scene are the subject to “almost-total neglect” is a disservice to the writers and wanderers who’ve done great work documenting the Bronx. Dave Cook at Eating in Translation continues to uncover more of the city’s interesting meals and food secrets in its most far-flung neighborhoods. Robert Sietsema at the Village Voice is a constant champion of Bronx restaurants. Chris E. Crowley at Serious Eats has a regular and superb column tackling everything from Vietnamese to Dominican to Ghanaian to Bangladeshi restaurants. Justin Fornal, a.k.a. Baron Ambrosia, has brought the borough’s food scene to food television with aplomb, wit, and intelligence, to the point that a 1,600-square-foot billboard with the guy’s likeness went up over the Bruckner last summer. The Bronx is becoming more and more well-known as a food destination by the day, and maybe Mariani just needs to watch more TV.