Tag Archive | "Food"

Bronx’s Little Italy set for Sunday festival

The Belmont area of the Bronx will celebrate its annual Ferragosto festival to mark the end of the summer season this Sunday, DNAinfo reported. Food vendors, musical guests and other merchants are set to line the streets of Arthur Ave. in the Bronx. Other entertainment is also scheduled throughout the day in honor of the annual Italian tradition, which marks the change of seasons with food and festivities. Frank Franz, chairman of the Belmont Business Improvement District, says most people consider the festival to be the "biggest and most successful festival all year" within the Belmont area.

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From Bangladesh to the Bronx

Naan bread and meat curries are among the house's specialties; the menu varies, but goat, chicken, and duck stews are always available. BIANCA CONSUNJI/The Bronx Ink

Make no mistake: The food in Neerob, a canteen-style eatery in the Bronx, is Bangladeshi—not Indian. The Parkchester restaurant first opened over three years ago, spurred by owner Mohammed Rahman’s frustration that numerous “Indian” restaurants actually served dishes native to Bangladesh, and were staffed by Bengalis. “When you say that the food in a restaurant is Bangladeshi, no one wants to come,” said Rahman, who first came to the U.S. 20 years ago as a student. “But when you say it’s Indian, people are familiar with it. They know what to order.” He refused to comment on Indian food, saying only that although the basic principles of Bengali cooking are similar to Indian styles, Bangladeshi cooking uses different spices. For his dishes, Rahman uses less garlic and omits curry leaves—a vital ingredient in southern Indian cuisine that imparts a strong, slightly bitter flavor. “My dream is to make Bangladesh’s food mainstream,” said Rahman, whose family worked in the food service industry back in his hometown of Dhaka. “It’s authentic Bengali food.” The hole-in-the-wall establishment is located in the heart of a Bengali community along Starling Avenue, and it’s evident by the clientele who drop in for some deep-fried pakoras (South Asian vegetable fritters) and spiced milk tea. Neerob attracts a varied range of diners from all five boroughs of the city, plus more from upstate New York and New Jersey, but its regulars are by and large, Bengali. Rahman, a jovial, stocky man in his late 30s, shakes hands and exchanges a few words with every customer who comes in. Although Neerob means “quiet” in his native tongue, the atmosphere of the restaurant is anything but. Space is limited; lunchtime tables are inevitably filled with groups sharing banter over large platters of curried meat, wiping up traces of mustard oil and sauce with pillowy triangles of naan bread. Even deep in the afternoon on a Sunday, the restaurant is never empty. Fish, the staple of the Bengali diet, stars prominently on the menu. Pan-fried in mustard oil, minnow and catfish are covered with onions, chili, and cilantro, and doused with sauce. Prices don’t go over $10, so it’s a common sight to see blue-collar workers tucking into bread and curry, as well as a steady stream of professionals toting takeaway cartons of food for their families. Meat curry and a saffron-hued pilaf cost about $7.50-9 for the combination; a $1 piece of naan and a $4 dollop of bharta (a mashed dish of vegetables sometimes mixed with seafood) is a meal on its own, although $1 portions are available for curious diners who want to try different varieties. Pakoras are three for a dollar. Desserts are limited, but shôndesh, a creamy ball of cottage cheese soaked in syrup, ends the meal on a satisfying note. Customers come for the food as well as the cozy atmosphere. Taxi driver Khandoker Huq, who comes in at least twice a month for some chicken or fish curry, said, “He’s a fantastic guy and cooks good food.” Bani Chodhury, a physician from Bedford Hills, often makes the trip from Scarsdale to Starling Avenue to purchase food for her family. “During the week, I can’t always cook,” said Chodhury. “I even have Neerob cater my parties, and the best part is, they always provide a surplus of food so there’s no shortage, no matter how many guests come—and in Bangladesh, people take home food from parties.” Rahman doesn’t hesitate to pass on recipes to customers, some of them American-born Bengalis yearning to learn more about their culinary heritage. “I always tell the recipe,” he said. “I’m not losing anything. When you help somebody, they will come again.” But don’t ask him what’s in Neerob’s signature tea, a fragrant mixture of milk and spices. “That’s my only secret,” he said, winking.   Neerob, 2109 Starling Avenue (Olmstead Avenue), Parkchester, Bronx; (718) 904-7061 By subway: Castle Hill on the No. 6 train  

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Better luck at next year’s Savor the Bronx

eggplant

The legendary Mario's Restaurant served its regular fare for restaurant week (LINDSAY MINERVA/The Bronx Ink)

Holy cannoli.  No special prices at Mario's for the Bronx’s first annual restaurant week?
Instead, customers looking for a deal at the iconic Arthur Avenue restaurant were offered a free glass of Montepulciano red wine and a complimentary crash course in all things Italy. Ionic columns and brick arches frame the dining room overflowing with Roman sculptures, portraits of Tuscany, Italian flags, and endless family photos.
Owner Joseph Migliucci said he could not offer a special prix fixe menu because his family-owned business in Belmont already offers the best food on Arthur Avenue at a great price as it is. “Being here 92 years, we feel we’re the best restaurant on Arthur Avenue,” said Migliucci, 73, who has been working at the restaurant named after his father since he was 13 years old.
Mario’s was one of 40 restaurants chosen to participate in “Savor the Bronx,” an event that offered customers a chance to explore the borough’s culinary diversity at a discount from Nov. 1 to Nov. 13. Migliucci believed the promotional two weeks did not bring in any more customers this year.
What started as a pizza parlor with six tables in 1919 now seats more than 100 in what is now one of the most famous Italian restaurants in the city’s “Real Little Italy.”  Migliucci’s father Mario, his uncle Clemente, and great grandmother Scolastia--all originally from Naples--opened the restaurant after they moved to the United States.
The cheesy penne-rigate sorrentina made with southern Italian sauce went for $13.50e with southern Italian sauces. The pasta was hidden beneath a layer of baked mozzarella. Ricotta cheese oozed out of the thick tomato sauce. Another popular southern Italian dish is the stuffed eggplant for $9, also known as eggplant rollatini. Slightly under-cooked, it hid bits of beef and sausage not mentioned on the menu. For these heavier dishes, the pleasantly crispy sesame bread with olive oil and butter soaked up the savory tomato sauce. It’s worth a trip to Adieo, where the bread is made everyday, just two stores down. The clams oreganate at $9 for 5 were seasoned with oregano and baked with bread crumbs are somewhat lighter. The fresh clams--bought from the Cosenza’s fish market across the street--were served with squeezed lemon on top. “Restaurant Week did not really help us, but it was the first year,” said Migliucci.  “Maybe next year it will catch on.”  

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Bringing the farm to the Grand Concourse

Nearly 40 people gathered Tuesday, Oct. 3 in a church on the Grand Concourse over a bounty that included arroz con gandules, pico de gallo, green plantains with cheese and three types of tacos. The meal was notable not for its Latino roots, but for its use of fresh, pesticide-free vegetables in an area of the South Bronx where it’s often hard to find healthy food. The diners were all members of the Farm Fresh Project, a group of  50 Bronx residents who have signed up to receive weekly supplies of produce from an upstate farm. But the project has reached its membership limit so now organizers are hoping to spread the healthy eating message in other ways, such as the potluck supper, which was  made by members using their recent supply of produce. “It’s a way to build community,” said Jackie Goulet, an Americorps member who coordinates Bronx CSA, a farm project for the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. “It’s a way to learn about new ideas and good recipes.” The project is the first of its kind in the South Bronx and is a small step toward addressing a perennial problem in the neighborhood, which faces both a lack of fresh food supply and an obesity problem. Nearby Highbridge has only two supermarkets to serve 34,000 people, causing many local residents to shop at bodegas, most of which have meager and expensive produce offerings, according to Healthy Highbridge Coordinator Juan Rios. According to a 2008 city study called “New York City Neighborhood Grocery Store and Supermarket Shortage,” most of the districts in the South Bronx have too few places to buy fresh food. At the same time, a 2006 New York City Department of Health and Hygiene report shows four in 10 children and two out of three adults in the South Bronx are overweight or obese. Community supported agriculture projects bring together a group of people who pay in advance for a season’s worth of goods from a nearby farm. This particular program offers food from Fresh Radish Farm, located 60 miles away in Goshen, NY. Area residents pick up vegetables, such as zucchini, onions, potatoes, tomatoes and greens weekly or biweekly. Whatever is left over is donated to the food pantry at Seventh Day Adventist Church at which the market is located. Unlike traditional farm shares, this one is subsidized by a one-time $30,000 Legacy Project Grant from the Bronx Health Reach, a community-based healthcare initiative. Residents must sign a contract ahead of time, but can pay each week with a sliding scale based on income. A family making over $50,000 would pay $485, but a family on food stamps pays only $120 for the whole season, which lasts from June to November. A bag of assorted produce estimated to feed a family of four costs $5.45 a week for families who receive food stamps.

Americorps worker and food share organizer Jackie Goulet says most of the farm share members pay in food stamps.(Rani Molla/THE BRONX INK)

An overwhelming majority of Bronx farm share members gets food stamps, Goulet said. Food stamp eligibility involves a number of factors, such as family size and income, but generally a family cannot have more than $2,000 in resources, according to the government's food stamp fact sheet. Concourse resident Maria Hernandez, 28, heard about the market from a friend. She said that since the farm share began, she’s been able to afford to make her young daughter more vegetable dishes. “If you have them, you see what you can do with them,” she said of the vegetables, which she pays for with her food stamp card. “If you have to buy them, you can think of something else to make”—something else quicker and without produce. Most of the members are also Spanish speakers, so Goulet canvassed since winter distributing pamphlets in both English and Spanish. “It took a really long time to get 50 people to sign up,” the 24-year-old said. “It’s a weird concept people haven’t heard of: asking people for money for something they haven’t even seen yet.” Goulet writes a newsletter each week that includes nutrition facts, information about the farm, as well as “quick, easy and affordable” recipes geared at the produce—necessary as new products are introduced to the population. One recipe, “Grilled Cheese with a Twist,” suggests adding red onion, garlic, spinach and tomato to the quick staple. “Chunky Vegetable Soup” addresses the changing offerings of a farm share by suggesting “soft vegetables like zucchini, green beans, summer squash, or leafy greens such as kale, spinach or collard greens.”

Grand Concourse residents load up on fresh produce. (Rani Molla/THE BRONX INK)

As a handful of people arrived before the 5 p.m. weekly market start time, Goulet told some perplexed produce shoppers they could use the strange and soft pumpkin greens for soup. The farm share also offers more recognizable produce, such as tomatoes, potatoes and lettuce. Eva Sanchez, 33, a mother of three whose young son would occasionally help translate for her, enjoys the offerings. “It’s economical and the vegetables are good,” she said. Sanchez, who lives on the Grand Concourse,  prefers vegetables to meat but said choosing produce was harder before the farm share came to her neighborhood. “It’s not difficult; it’s expensive,” said Sanchez, who heard about the project from a friend. Sanchez also volunteers at the farm share, helping other people with their groceries. This is a step in the right direction, according to Goulet, who said normally farm shares are run by their members. “It’s starting to take off on its own,” said Goulet, who commutes from her family’s home in Long Island. "That’s something I hoped would happen.” Goulet ends her Americorps work in December but says she believes the project will go forward, adding that next year the farm share could carry fruit in addition to vegetables. This year a scheduling conflict prohibited the small organization from receiving fruit deliveries. According to New York City Coalition Against Hunger spokeswoman Theresa Hassler, “It’s the first year, so of course we plan on growing. We definitely plan on expanding and growing in coming years as participation and interest grow.” With that, farm share employees hope the community will grow healthier too.

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Sen. Gillibrand wants more fresh-food infrastructure in ‘food deserts,’ NY Daily News

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) focused on the Bronx's "food deserts" during Tuesday's annual Farm Day, calling for more fresh fruits and vegetables in impoverished areas, New York Daily News. Gillibrand sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee and is pushing for "food hub infrastructure" funding initiatives into the 2012 Farm Bill. The Daily News reports that such funding would help places like the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market. The Bronx is the worst borough in the city when it comes to obesity and diabetes, according to the city Health Department.

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Chilis and Piñatas

Silvestre Rosas owns the Guadalupita store in Belmont

Norteña music blasts from a boom-box at a Mexican grocery store in Belmont.  There is little space to move between aisles crammed with canned foods and bags of Mexican treats. Bright piñatas hang from the ceiling along with metal pots used for making tamales. Piggy banks made of clay, sit snugly on a rack, just a couple steps away from lollipops covered with chili powder. With so many trinkets and snacks to buy. What sells the most in this cluttered store? Owner Silvestre Rosas glances at a five- foot long freezer with avocados, fresh chilli pepers, tomatoes and nopal leaves. “People come for the vegetables” he says. Rosas points at a batch of green Guaje pods. “People open these ones and take out little seeds that are inside, they grind the seeds in the molcajetes –earth pots that are also on sale- they mix it with some chilli peppers and make a salsa.” he says. A native of the state of Puebla, Rosas reckons he will be too busy tending his store to party on Cinco de Mayo. Fordham college students may come in for a six pack or two, and just in case any clients want to get patriotic, Rosas is also selling Mexican flags. For more day-to-day necessities he also sells Ponds face creams and candles to light at church altars. But none of this is as popular as the vegetables. “Mexicans from the south use vegetables often,” says Rosas. “Like the Poblano chili peppers, which they fill with cheese and cover with salsa.  In my house, my wife cooks that for me too.”

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The little Mexican restaurant that could

Co-owner and chef Alfredo Diego welcomes customers with a smile.

Co-owner and chef Alfredo Diego welcomes customers with a smile. Photo: Alexander Besant

On any weekday morning, Alfredo Diego, co-owner of Coqui Mexicano restaurant, is busy cooking slivers of chicken for tacos, spooning out avocados for guacamole, and chopping onions, lettuce and tomatoes for garnish. He then wipes down the counters, sits near the window overlooking a bleak strand of Third Avenue near 161st Street in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, and waits for customers to come. Sometimes he waits for hours. Diego and his girlfriend, Danisha Nazario, 37, moved to the area in 2001 and have owned and run their small Mexican-Puerto Rican fusion restaurant and deli for just over two years. The restaurant, which serves tacos alongside black beans, rice and other regional cuisine in a stripped down bodega with just three tables, is just one of a handful of restaurants in the area – and one of the only ones that does not specialize in fried chicken. “We try to make healthy food here,” said Danisha. “The area needs more healthy places.” But two years after its opening, Coqui Mexicano has yet to break even. Nazario said the restaurant is getting closer to reaching the $5,000 necessary to stay out of debt each month, but so far, their sales have not turned a profit. Diego estimates that the restaurant serves about 30 customers per day, mostly regulars and mostly those coming for lunch from other local businesses. The couple is not sure how much longer they can last at the current rate. In many ways, the couple may be two fragile steps ahead of the expected resurgence in this neighborhood. “This is a place where people are just starting to play,” Nazario said. “But there is no foot traffic at night.” Both remain remain hopeful. The restaurant lies at heart of a revitalization that is expected to include new housing units and restaurants surrounded the recently completed satellite campus of Boricua College. Construction has begun to attract hundreds of new residents, those who Nazario and Diego hope will become frequent customers. However, according to Nazario, currently, the new population seems to prefer Manhattan for its nightlife, so far. Construction is slow, and the hints of revitalization she and Diego saw years earlier has not yet panned out. Born in Puerto Rico, Nazario has lived most of her life in the United States. She graduated in International Marketing from Baruch College and later worked at Dallas BBQ, the New York City food chain where she met Diego. Later, she took a position in the business center of the Essex Hotel in midtown Manhattan where she continues to head to work at 5:30 a.m. every weekday. “I still go to work ‘till the business can hold itself,” said Nazario. Diego, who now works full-time at the restaurant, was born in Acapulco, Mexico. Though he remains coy about his life story, he says that he learned to cook at home in Mexico where, as a boy, he would often make meals for his siblings to help his mother – an experience that put him off cooking for years. He arrived in the United States some 20 years ago and has worked all over Manhattan in food stores, restaurants and bodegas, finally ending up at Dallas BBQ. Diego and Nazario began renting the Bronx storefront in the spring of 2008 on the site of a former grocery store that, according to the couple, was a drug den that housed a brothel in a back room. “The woman who owned it lived in New Jersey,” said Nazario. “She didn’t care about what her business was doing to the neighborhood.” It took the couple three months to clean out the store, which was in abysmal shape, full of decaying food products and garbage. During the cleaning, Diego developed a lung infection from the noxious fumes that emanated from the debris found in the store. “It was horrible,” said Nazario. “The store was disgusting.” Though the couple had readied the restaurant for business in mid-summer, they were not given the go ahead by the city for another few months until Nazario went downtown and caused what she called, “a scene,” in the department that issues restaurant permits. They were awarded a license to serve food in September, after having spent $10,000 for five months rent without making a dollar. The couple faced another obstacle just after opening: discrimination from the local community. “There has also been a lot of controversy because I am Puerto Rican and Diego is Mexican,” said Nazario. “A lot of people in the community did not accept this. We would get racist remarks and everyday lots of people telling us to get out of the neighborhood.” The couple’s problems went beyond neighborhood xenophobia, as they recognized that overhead costs climbed higher than expected and that the neighborhood had not changed as fast as they had hoped – many of the buildings around them were just being constructed with potential customers not moving into the area soon enough. In that first year, business was slow. In desperation Nazario got on the Internet and searched for cheap ways to promote the business. She joined Facebook and began randomly contacting residents of the area, asking them to come out and try the restaurant. “I had never used anything like it before,” she said. “Facebook really saved my ass.” She even began sending e-mail messages to local U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano, tempting him with homemade guava cake. To get word out to the community, Nazario also helped to create an informal neighborhood pact whereby area business owners agreed to patronize one another’s stores to help support local commerce. The pact includes a local bodega, a community college and a nearby Chinese restaurant owned by a husband and wife team who have experienced similar problems to Nazario and Diego. “She and I have a lot in common,” said Nazario. “We tell each other our problems and about how business is going.” Yet her efforts were still not enough to make the bills stop piling up and in March of this year, the couple was handed an eviction notice for having not made rent payments to the landlord. At that point, they were eating soup every day to save money for rent. But just before their scheduled court date to fight the eviction, their luck changed. The couple received an email from Agnes Rodriguez, 31, an arraignment clerk at the Bronx Defenders inviting them to a fundraiser at their restaurant. Rodriguez had organized the fundraiser after hearing that the restaurant, where many Bronx Defenders’ staff eat lunch, was struggling. “We love them dearly at the Bronx Defenders,” said Rodriguez. “And I always want to support Latino businesses in the area.” The couple was touched by Rodriquez’s gesture, which raised hundreds of dollars for the restaurant - money they needed to keep Coqui Mexicano alive. On top of that, Rep. Serrano, who had finally come in to taste the guava cake almost a year before, helped Nazario negotiate a payment plan with the landlord, which came to an end this month. “Even if we hadn’t survived it would be worth it because we made so many friends,” said Nazario. These days, the couple is trying to build on their positive momentum, however slight, by generating a more solid customer base. They have established a small lending library in the form of stuffed bookshelf near the front door that they hope will bring more people in, even if they don’t want to eat. And they have hosted concerts by local musicians, too, hoping to generate buzz around the restaurant. Nazario admits that the difficulties of keeping the restaurant open have put a strain on her relationship. She and Diego take their problems from work home with them at night. Yet she is adamant that they are not ready to give up. The couple plans to keep the business alive for as long as they can. “We’ve been through so much,” Nazario said. “But we’ll pull through.”

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Midnight fish run

Video by David Patrick Alexander and Elettra Fiumi.

It is past midnight as Saul Montiel climbs into the front seat of a minivan parked outside of his restaurant Gusto on Greenwich Avenue in Manhattan. The floor of the van is lined with plastic, and would make for an easy clean up if this were a midnight mafia hit. But Montiel is not a mobster. He is a chef, and the van will soon be filled with the freshest fish available from the New Fulton Fish Market in Hunts Point, Bronx. At the start of the recession in 2008, Montiel began going to the New Fulton Fish market himself, as a way to cut costs at Gusto. What began as an adjustment to a struggling economy turned into one of the best business moves Montiel ever made. “We should have done it from the beginning so I can save a lot of money and get a better product,” said Montiel about his midnight trips to the fish market. As he began visiting the market himself, Montiel realized that a hands-on approach was the best way to not only run a more efficient business, but also to supply the Gusto menu with fresh fish. Security is strict at the entrance, and only after an argument over bringing in a camera is Montiel’s van allowed to proceed. The original Fulton Fish Market was established in 1822 in Lower Manhattan. Before the relocation to the South Bronx, stories of corruption at the market were as plentiful as the crates of fish. The move to Hunts Point dragged the market out of the past and into an efficient, more regulated future. Saul Montiel examines oysters at the marketInside, everything is brand new except for the people working there. High ceilings, florescent lights, and a temperature-controlled environment clash with the fishhook toting grizzled men shoveling ice and moving fish. The men continue to work a profession that has existed for as long as man has had an appetite for the bounties of the sea. The market is enormous, second only in size to the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, and it would be easy to get lost searching for the best fish. Fortunately Montiel has connections, which help him with the process. “I have like three or four people that I like, because they know what I want, they know what I am looking for,” he said. “It makes my job easier.” One of his contacts at the market is John Guttilla, a vendor for Blue Ribbon Fish Company. Guttilla sports a fedora, a fishhook with his name inscribed on the handle, and a cigar in his front shirt pocket. He knows the Gusto crew well. “When he and his staff come in, these guys they know what they’re doing,” said Guttilla. “Naturally they want to save money where they can, but that is not their focus of attention. They want the best available product, which is why they get out of bed in the middle of the night to come down here.” After placing an order for oysters from the Blue Ribbon Fish Company, Montiel continues to walk from vendor to vendor, carefully examining the fish of the day. Picking up a fish, he touches the eyeballs and pokes the body. “If it is firm that means that it’s fresh,” he said. “If it is kind of soft, that means it has been out of the sea for a couple of days.” Montiel pokes around until he is convinced he has found the best fish for his kitchen. A few months back, Montiel began to notice the abundance of high-quality cheap oysters that were available, so he decided to open an oyster bar inside his restaurant. Every Monday he offers $1 oysters that he bought that day at the fish market. Driving back to Gusto in the middle of the night, the van is full of seafood. Montiel will drop off the fish, sleep until around 11 a.m., and then come back to the kitchen to start preparations for the evening. “It is not easy to get a good quality fish in a restaurant,” said Montiel. “It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of my sleep, but I believe fish should always be delicious and fresh.”

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