On a cool sunny weekday afternoon, the crowds were out in Little Italy. In the two outdoor European-style cafes that anchor either end of Arthur Avenue, in the Belmont Section of the Bronx, tourists and locals sat outside, sipping espresso, smoking and chatting away.
At Luna Cafe, just past the giant Italian flag painted in the intersection, the red Albanian flag was flying, while men smoked hookah in the plastic-covered outdoor area. Over at Prince Coffee House, four blocks away, regulars chatted in Albanian. The only Italians were the third- and fourth-generation shoppers from the suburbs, stopping in for a coffee break between mozzarella and soppressata runs in the nearby stores.
“I wouldn’t call it Little Albania,” said Florian Lota, 21, a recent immigrant from Kosovo who works the counter at Prince. “It’s more like Big Albania.”
For decades, the Little Italys of the city have been shrinking as immigrant families from the turn of the last century move up and out of New York. But a different kind of contraction has taken place in the Belmont section of the Bronx. There, the Italian diaspora has been slowly replaced with immigration from the Baltic States and Latin America, which is actually helping to preserve Italian culture in the neighborhood.
Though it’s still branded as Little Italy, a great many of the people serving the coffee, slicing the caciocavallo, and making the cannoli are from Albania or Mexico.
Belmont’s Little Italy is by far the most intact and authentic — whatever that means anymore — of the city’s Little Italys. The closest that downtown’s Little Italy has gotten to “authenticity” was a few months back when Netflix, to promote Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” dressed it up to look like it was still the 1970s. At last count, Italians in Manhattan’s Little Italy accounted for just 5 percent of the population. Bensonhurst, in Brooklyn, was long ago subsumed by that borough’s Chinatown. East Harlem and even Staten Island’s Italian community have given way to more recent immigrants.
Belmont today is a far cry from its insulated, Mafia-protected racially charged past made famous by movies like “A Bronx Tale.” But the Bronx’s Little Italy, encompassing about 40 square blocks, has thrived partly because of its influx of new ethnically diverse immigrants, not in spite of them.
“It’s a cliché, but we’re all one big happy family up here,” said Frank Franz, the treasurer of the Belmont Business Improvement District, one of only two board members who still lives in the borough. “I’m not saying we don’t fight with one another. But we don’t fight over who we are, but because we got screwed by somebody. I mean, it happens.”
Because of its proximity to Italy across the Adriatic Sea, Albania has had a strong relationship with its neighbor for centuries. In the Middle Ages, Albanians settled in Southern Italy and became known as the Arbereshe, creating their own Albanian-Italian dialects, which are still spoken in small pockets throughout Italy.
During the Communist period, Albanians picked up the language because Italian television was all that was broadcast. After the collapse of Soviet Union and the start of the Kosovo War, Italy was an entry point to the west for ethnic Albanians fleeing persecution. Because they understood Italian, they have had a smooth transition into Little Italy in the Bronx and are starting to follow the Italians before them into the suburbs.
While it’s nothing new that Albanians and Mexicans are working behind the scenes in Belmont, those new immigrants are now also fronting their own shops, filling the gaps left by the Italians who’ve moved, and helping to keep the neighborhood as lively as it’s ever been.
Ramiz Kukaj, an ethnic Albanian from Kosovo who moved here from Italy, operated a pizzeria on 204th Street in the Norwood neighborhood, flying under the radar. Then one day about a decade ago his 15-year-old son came home and said his Greek friends had taken him to a Greek restaurant, his Italian friends took him to an Italian restaurant.
“He said, ‘Daddy, I want to take my friends to an Albanian restaurant, can you tell me one?’ And I said, ‘Oh, my God.’ I was not able to provide him with that. I felt very bad. That’s when I started thinking about it. I have to do something.”
Two years ago, he opened Cka Ka Qellu, the first restaurant in the Bronx with a full Albanian menu. The restaurant sits on a small street behind the big indoor Italian food market on Arthur Avenue. It features not only Albanian cuisine, but has traditional costumes, antique tools and two-stringed cifteli hanging on the walls. It’s been a success, but it’s still the only one of its kind.
The neighborhood’s main attraction is still the Italian food. According to Little Italy’s business improvement district, of the 350 businesses in the area, 63 represent Italy and make a majority of the money — which at last count was $300 million a year in retail alone. Though many of the Italian shops and restaurants are still owned by the original families (most of them live outside the neighborhood) not all are owned by Italians.
Michaelangelo’s restaurant flies the Italian flag, but its owners are Albanian. Tony and Tina’s Pizzeria not only serves slices and garlic knots but also offers traditional Albanian burek — flaky pastry filled with meat. The local cigar shop and the wine store with one of the best selections of Italian wines in the city are both owned by Latinos.
This is nothing new to the Bronx, of course.
Teitel Brothers, the area’s premier salumeria, which provides wholesale cured meats to most of Little Italy’s restaurants, is owned by European Jews who learned Italian long ago and have been here since 1915. Back in the ’30s, with the rise of anti-Semitism, the building landlord told Jacob Teitel that if the Italians all knew the family was Jewish, they would never shop there.
To prove him wrong, Mr. Teitel placed a red Star of David in the white mosaic tile in the entryway. And there it still sits, crowds of Italian-Americans and tourists pushing their way over it and into the tiny store.
“My father made a statement,” said Gilbert Teitel, 79, who runs the shop with his sons.
Even though Italians continue to frequent Arthur Avenue, attending the Ferragosto festival, which attracts over 30,000 each September, and the newer pizza festival that started two years ago, the makeup of those who actually live in the neighborhood has changed. In 1970, the Belmont section was 89.5 percent white, according to the city’s planning office; by 2017, Latinos made up the majority at 75 percent. But unlike the Italian neighborhoods of Manhattan and Brooklyn, it has maintained its Old World sensibilities.
Part of this is owed to the Bronx’s unusual situation in the city. For one thing, Belmont lacks easy subway access, which over the years hindered the major gentrification that has hit much of New York, keeping real estate prices relatively low and original business owners from selling out.
“Through the ’70s and ’80s it was like this weird Italian Hobbit shire,” said Danielle Oteri, a tour guide who runs Arthur Avenue Food Tours. “There was no need to push in here. It never became a super bad neighborhood or a super wealthy neighborhood.”
Some believe it was the Mafia, not just the lack of transportation, that kept the neighborhood insulated for decades. Local residents say that up until the 1980s, businesses in the area had to pay tribute — called pizzo — to the mob in return for protection. As recently as two years ago, one Arthur Avenue restaurateur went to prison for shaking down gamblers who owed him money.
Rumors about the Albanian mob replacing the old Italian mob have circulated. Alex Rudaj, said to be the head of the Albanian mob in the Bronx, was sentenced to 27 years in federal prison in 2006 for racketeering. No one in the neighborhood will officially acknowledge its existence. “I’ve heard some stories,” said Mr. Lota, who works at Prince Café. “But I don’t know anything about that.”
These days, the only signs of the Mafia are the “Godfather” theme piped in over Calandra’s cheese shop and the aprons for sale that say: “Leave the gun. Take the cannolis.”
It’s no surprise that Mexicans, like the Albanians before them, have integrated so well into Little Italy, Ms. Oteri said. “Italians and Mexicans have so many parallels in their immigration journey. They do Sunday dinner,” she said. “We had the same conquerors. They were controlled by the same Spanish forces.” Even their flags are the same colors.
Over at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the old Italian parish, a corner is dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Mexican families stroll the avenue on the weekend, picking out pig snouts at the Italian butcher so grandma can make carnitas. The head baker at the Italian-owned Egidio Pastry Shop is Mexican and has been there for 22 years. The menu features not only cannoli but flan and tres leches cake. And there are now seven Mexican restaurants in Little Italy.
The community has blended so thoroughly into the fiber of the neighborhood that the last time the Italians won the World Cup, in 2006, Mexicans took to the streets yelling, “We won!” said Roman Casarrubias, the owner of M&G, a diner on Arthur Avenue.
Business has been so good, Mr. Casarrubias, said, that he opened a second diner a few blocks away. He employs around 14 people from his home country of Mexico, as well as from Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. But his clientele is a league of nations, he said. “We’re all friends over here.”