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A particular restaurant, a specific market, an exquisite sandwich—whatever it is that brings you to Arthur Avenue, a two-block stretch at East 187th Street, in the center of the Bronx that’s famous for being the borough’s Little Italy, the real draw is the entire area. It’s ill-advised, if not downright impossible, to do a quick in-and-out at one business only, to ignore the wealth of food and drink that surrounds you. Maybe you come in for scarpariello at Dominick’s or scaloppine at Mario’s, or a bouquet of sausages from Calabria Pork Store, but it would be a wasted opportunity not to swing by Morrone Pastry for a box of Florentines, or to pick up an Alla Phil on ciabatta at Casa Della Mozzarella for lunch.
Crabs on display at Cosenza’s Fish Market, down the block and across the street from Randazzo’s.
To my mind, no trip to the area is complete without a pit stop at one of the street’s duelling outdoor shellfish stands—especially in the autumn, when the air is just a little too chilly, and being outdoors feels like a treat. The two ersatz raw bars, one outside Cosenza’s Fish Market, on the east side of Arthur Avenue, the other outside Randazzo’s Seafood, across the street and a little down the block, are where you can get various shellfish shucked to order, devouring them à la minute while standing around on the sidewalk. There’s something unavoidably primal about prying open an oyster or clam and sucking it from its shell—there’s no way to aesthetically refine the act’s essential ferality. All the usual intermediations of human carnivorousness are absent: no slaughter, no butchering, no cooking. It’s fun as hell, a disposal of ritual, a moment of pure sensation. A white-haired gent in a topcoat and fedora throws down a dozen clams shoulder to shoulder with a twentysomething fashion girly in platform sneakers, an eleven-year-old boy in a camo jacket, and a middle-aged food writer: We are animals eating animals, in the middle of the street, in the Bronx.
People hold fierce loyalties to their Arthur Avenue stores of choice, mostly based on nostalgia, and the indefinable value of a personal relationship with one’s foodmonger. I won’t tell you that Cosenza’s or Randazzo’s is better—the truth is, you can get a lovely bit of salmon or a wiggly pile of fresh scungilli at both. Both have been in operation since the early nineteen-hundreds; both have an atmosphere of brisk efficiency; both draw passionate crowds to the pelagic wonders for sale within and to the wondrously zero-frills raw bars without. At Cosenza’s, ice-filled benches just outside the store’s windows display piles of bivalves: clams are shucked to the left of the front door (a buck-fifty each for juicy midsize cherrystones, fifteen dollars for a dozen) and oysters to the right. On a recent visit, the lineup included Beau Soleils, from New Brunswick, and Wellfleets, from Massachusetts, for $2.99 each; Blue Points from Long Island Sound, for $2.50; and—at a steep $3.99 a pop—Kumamotos from California’s Humboldt Bay. There’s an array of dressings and hot sauces, including a mouth-puckering homemade mignonette, and the oysters are glorious, a symphony of brine and richness, especially the Blue Points, mild and rich as salted butter, and the peachy sweetness of the Kumamotos. But I struggled to get past the restaurant-level pricing. The stand-and-slurp experience was transportive, transcendent; handing over my credit card was a thunking return to earth.
Slurping shellfish alfresco is a particular treat in autumn, when the air is just a little too chilly.
Down the block and across the street, at Randazzo’s (no commercial relation to the restaurant of the same name in Sheepshead Bay, though the proprietors are distant cousins), the sidewalk raw bar offers a similar proposition, with a little bit more of a rough-spun air. The day’s offerings are kept on ice just outside the shop—but stored in a cooler, here, rather than neatly arrayed for display—and there’s a stainless-steel countertop to belly up to, rather than, as at Cosenza’s, a branded vinyl marquee. There were clams, of course, fifteen dollars a dozen, and also the thrilling option of razor clams, their long, rectangular shells housing juicy mollusks more subtle in flavor than their conventional counterparts. There were just two varieties of oyster on offer—Blue Points, with their tangy liquor and grassy, bright flavor, and those buttery Beau Soleil—each at two dollars apiece. That’s the sort of price that lets a person order a dozen, and maybe another dozen after that, to see how far she can take this thing. As at Cosenza’s, you can stand at the counter and slurp them as they’re shucked or, quite enticingly, take a seat at one of the folding chairs set on the sidewalk against the other shopwindow, to people-watch, and perhaps sip on the cheap white wine in a little plastic cup that’s mysteriously appeared on the card table in front of you. Squeeze the lemon, dab the hot sauce, devour. ♦