Tag Archive | "Food"

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.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Food, Food and Beyond, Money, Special ReportsComments (0)

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.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Food, Southern BronxComments (0)

Take the cannoli — with a heavy dollop of family tradition

Anthony Artuso Sr. may have cannoli and entrepreneurship in his genes.

The Belmont native and one-time aspiring aeronautical engineer recalls scrubbing pots and pans at his father’s pastry shop when he was 13 years old. His father, Vincent Sr., bought the pastry shop for approximately $12,000 in 1946 after returning home from World War II.

Anthony Artuso Sr., in the back of his pastry shop, next to chocolate-dipped cannoli shells. Photo: Brent Ardaugh

Anthony Artuso Sr., in the back of his pastry shop, next to chocolate-dipped cannoli shells. Photo: Brent Ardaugh

Now Artuso, 63, and two of his children, Anthony Jr. and Concetta, have transformed the shop’s retail and wholesale locations into multi-million-dollar pastry powerhouses. According to Artuso, he sells over nine million cannoli a year, and in 2009, the wholesale location alone made nearly $6 million in sales.

His current clients include Whole Foods, Hyatt and the New York Yankees.

Artuso and his brother Joseph operate the retail store on the corner of Vincent F. Artuso Sr. Way and Cambreleng Avenue. Assemblyman José Rivera named a section of East 187th Street after Artuso’s father to honor his dedication and success in the pastry business, a legacy the Artuso family strives to continue every day.

When Artuso comes to work, he sports polished shoes, slacks with a crease, a cell phone above his right hip and an eye for detail.

“That tag on those cookies is falling down,” he said to one of his employees standing behind the glass display case. “See if you can straighten that out.”

Artuso may be meticulous, but he remains well-liked and respected by his employees, some of whom have worked for him for many years.

“He’s a good business man,” said Amanda Rivera, who works behind the counter at Artuso’s retail store. “He’s always telling us that we have to stay focused on the customers.”

Artuso’s interest in customer service is not new. Even as a teenager when he was working for his father, Artuso was interested in recruiting new customers, keeping existing ones and expanding the family business.

Artuso never really considered himself a first-class baker. He was always more of a helper, he said, an experience that he believes helped shape the man he is today.

“In those days when you worked with old-time Italian bakers, they were very rough especially if you were the boss’s son,” said Artuso of his teenage years at his father’s shop. “They [old-time bakers] used to say go to the hardware store and get a gallon of pigeon milk; tell me to go out and get a bucket of steam. I guess it made a man out of you. If you managed to survive, you became a better person.”

Years later, when Artuso became the boss, his children worked for him and also took away many life lessons.

“I’ve really learned a great sense of business from my father,” said Artuso’s daughter Concetta, who operates the wholesale location in Mount Vernon with her brother. “My father taught me how to think like a customer and how to be sensitive to their issues.”

Artuso did not acquire his clever business sense by accident. When he was growing up, Artuso would spend such long hours working that his mother would make Sunday dinner in the back of the pastry shop.

When Artuso was nine years old, he would go to the liquor store located across the street from the shop to buy beer and wine for dinner. The employees at the liquor store would sell him liquor, even though they knew he was underage, because they knew his father.

When Artuso returned to the shop, he and his family would sit down to eat macaroni and meatballs with tomato sauce, at the same marble table they used to prepare cakes on previous days. Today, if he had the choice to have one plate of any food in the world, Artuso said it would be his mother’s homemade bolognese gravy with rigatoni.

When customers enter Artuso’s pastry shop, they are treated like members of his family.

“The Artuso family is not only the finest bakery in the world but the finest family in New York City,” said Thomas Leigh, who stopped into the shop to show Artuso a picture of his son in the newspaper. “There’s no soup kitchen nearby; they come here and the Artusos feed them. We’re talking about the work of Jesus Christ.”

Over the years, Artuso has hired hundreds of employees from the local community in his attempt to help residents secure and maintain jobs. He has also donated gift certificates and cakes to charitable organizations and helped put underserved people in contact with landlords.

The Belmont community was not always like it is today, he explained. He says it hit rock bottom in the 1990s before a revival. Sales increased and crime in the neighborhood went down. He attributed the revival in part to local attractions like the Bronx Zoo, Fordham University and the New York Botanical Garden.

“We’re opening up another retail location and trying to expand the wholesale business,” said Artuso. “If my father knew about all this expansion, he would be smiling right now.”

Posted in Food, Food and Beyond, Southern BronxComments (4)

A Throgs Neck baker turns her dream into a sweet business

Fourth of July blue velvet cupcakes with handmade gum paste flowers. Photo provided by Cammarota

Fourth of July blue velvet cupcakes with handmade gum paste flowers. Photo provided by Cammarota

The fall of 2009 was a season of highs and lows for Robin Cammarota. She was in love, engaged to be married and ready to start her very own baking business with the support of her fiancé, John Costello.

The couple brainstormed all summer for the perfect name to reflect the tasty creativity that went into her confections, which often contained flavor combinations like chocolate and avocado and ancho chili chocolate as well as fun shapes and characters like pandas, the cast of Sesame Street, and cupcakes with witch fingers coming out of the top for Halloween.

Cammarota says Costello urged her to take her baking from a hobby to a home business. By August, the pair had finally come up with a name for her burgeoning baking business, Land of Cake Believe. But just as Cammarota began to seriously market herself and her business, everything came crashing down.

A month after they decided on the name, Costello died suddenly of heart problems at the age of 25.

Cammarota and Costello in 2009. Photo provided by Cammarota

Cammarota and Costello in 2009. Photo provided by Cammarota

“It felt like my world ended,” Cammarota, 27, said of Costello’s sudden death. “After a loss like that, it’s hard to continue.” Getting back in the kitchen after Costello’s death was particularly difficult because he was such a big supporter of her dream.

But she finally did in early spring, and now her self-propelled baking business is a staple of the Throgs Neck community. She works from her home kitchen and earns profits of between $300 and $400 a month by charging $2 per cupcake and $3 to $5 per slice of cake at events. Bigger orders are billed individually.

Cammarota didn’t always take baking so seriously, but she always loved it. She grew up in Throgs Neck baking with her grandmother for every holiday. “My grandmother taught me the importance of patience when baking,” she said. “And that a birthday is not a birthday without a cake.”

When her grandmother died, Cammarota took those recipes and made them her own. They form the basis for all of her Land of Cake Believe creations, including her first foray into creative flavors: a sickeningly sweet Pez flavored cake she made while a freshman in high school at St. Catherine Academy in 1997.

Knitting basket cake. Photo provided by Cammarota

Knitting basket cake. Photo provided by Cammarota

“None of my friends will let me live that down,” Cammarota said. She bakes in a rose-and-skull pattern apron that mirrors her sweet yet daring flavor combinations.

When she got back in the kitchen after Costello’s death, Cammarota came up with her most innovative confections; peanut butter, Dr. Pepper, Killian’s Irish Red, and Blue Moon Orange are all cupcake flavors. She has even recently created apple and pumpkin cupcakes with caramel cream cheese frosting for the fall season. Cammarota likes to bake with seasonal ingredients that she finds at farmer’s markets and ethnic markets, baking by the motto that “fresh is best.”

“Once I have a good ground recipe, I can build upon it,” Cammarota said. “I have the tendency of just adding a random spice into a recipe I’ve been doing forever.” For instance, she recently played around with a sacher torte recipe. Sacher tortes are a traditional dessert in Vienna—a chocolate cake with apricot filling and a chocolate glaze. She decided to spice this classic up with ancho chili powder, a spicy pepper that complements the sweetness of the chocolate, and call it a Mexicanisher Sacher Torte.

She attributes her success and drive to Costello. Her drive now is to make him proud.

Cammarota and Costello met when they were 14 or 15 years old (“Neither of us could remember exactly when,” she said) and had been in and out of each other’s lives for years. At a rock concert hosted by grassroots production company Bronx Underground in early 2009, Cammarota brought double chocolate, vanilla-frosted cupcakes for the event staff to share and she brought one over to Costello.

“He had three by the end of the night and I left telling my friends, ‘I really like John’,” Cammarota said. “A few weeks later he asked me out and that was it.”

Cammarota in her kitchen. Photo provided by Cammarota

Cammarota in her kitchen. Photo provided by Cammarota

Costello often helped her set up at Bronx Underground shows. “He liked to make sure my product was well-represented,” Cammarota said.

Despite her love of baking, it took Cammarota until the spring of 2007 to enroll at the Institute for Culinary Education (ICE) in the Pastry and Baking Arts Program to really hone her baking skills. Cammarota calls herself a “perpetual student.” She already had a bachelor’s degree in German language and literature from Hunter College as well as a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Mercy College. She had held various jobs in the restaurant industry and was working as a college admissions counselor when she decided to focus on her baking.

Sesame Street cupcakes. Photo provided by Cammarota

Sesame Street cupcakes. Photo provided by Cammarota

“I realized I wasn’t as fulfilled with life as I should have been,” Cammarota said. She was “hooked” after making her first grooms cake in the summer of 2009. “I realized I had really found my passion,” she said.

She even uses her knowledge of the German language to make her baked goods different than anyone else’s. “ I translate recipes from German cookbooks and magazines,” Cammarota said. “It sets me apart from most other bakers.”

Word spread from person to person and friend to friend, particularly after she started selling cupcakes at Bronx Underground rock concerts last May. She had previously worked with the concert promoters.

“I made six dozen cupcakes and managed to sell all but three,” Cammarota said of the first Bronx Underground show. “A few weeks later was another show and I was asked if I could be there. A bit more sensible this time, I only made four dozen and sold out.”

She spent 15 hours making Bronx Underground’s “birthday cake” to celebrate the organization’s 10th anniversary. When she has really big orders, she takes up every inch of space in her small home kitchen. “Home kitchens aren’t made to make cakes big enough for 150 people,” she said. “But I make it work.” She’s thankful that her kitchen opens up into her dining area giving her more counter space for big orders and for flavor experimenting.

Cammarota and her Bronx Underground birthday cake. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Cammarota and her Bronx Underground birthday cake. Photo: Caitlin Tremblay

Cammarota said she hasn’t repeated a flavor at the shows yet and the concert-goers are more than happy to try them. “You don’t find a single one of these cupcakes wasted,” said James Beary, 24, a regular Bronx Underground attendee. “You never even find a single crumb on the ground. They’re that good.” Fans lined up for Cammarota’s cake at a recent Bronx Underground show, forgoing a spot in front of the stage for a place in the cupcake line.

From Bronx Underground’s exposure, her business took off (she has 704 fans on Facebook). “My orders come in waves,” Cammarota said. “I have some weeks where I’m literally working everyday and then I have other weeks when I have one. I like to bake everyday regardless of whether I have an order just to try out a new recipe. My friends and family both love and hate me for this.”

Apple and pumpkin cupcakes for fall. Photo provided by Cammarota

Apple and pumpkin cupcakes for fall. Photo provided by Cammarota

In addition to her cakes and cupcakes, Cammarota also makes breads and other pastries. She said she wanted to be a bread baker because “there’s something wonderful about kneading dough. I love making breads but people don’t typically ask for birthday breads.”

One day Cammarota hopes to open her own store. In the meantime, she still works full-time for a non-profit group as a research grant coordinator. To keep up with her current demand, she has recently enlisted the help of her best friend, Danielle Provino.

“She has helped on a few of the bigger orders,” Cammarota said.  “She is typically right by my side selling cupcakes at Bronx Underground shows. She is also my soundboard for design ideas. We work well together.” The teenagers at the Bronx Underground shows often ask Cammarota if she needs an intern. “Not right now,” she said. “But maybe one day soon, I will.”

Though her business is growing and she’s doing it largely by herself, Costello is always on her mind and drives her to be her best. “I bake for me and I bake to make John proud,” she said.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, East Bronx, Food, Food and Beyond, Special ReportsComments (0)

Bringing the farm to the Bronx

Vegetables came straight from the farm to the Bronx last Thursday. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

Vegetables came straight from the farm to the Bronx last Thursday. Photo: Elisabeth Anderson

It felt like Indian summer in the northwest Bronx on October 28th, and residents were enjoying its harvest.  Each visitor to the Norwood Food Co-op distribution event outside the Lutheran Church of the Epiphany on East 206th Street picked through farm-fresh eggs, yogurts, green tomatoes and two varieties of apples, stuffing them into canvas shoulder bags.

For a moment it was possible to forget that the 205th Street D train station was a half block away.

That’s the appeal of this Community Sponsored Agriculture food co-op, which connects nearly 60 Bronx families with Norwich Meadows Farm upstate.  From June through early November, fruits and vegetables are picked at the farm and loaded onto a truck that arrives in the Bronx by 2:30 p.m. Between 4 and 7 p.m., the produce is available to co-op members in Norwood.  The harvest changes week to week, depending on the weather and the season.

The co-op’s most common share option feeds a family of two to four people.  The $315 seasonal fee comes to about $15 a week.  Last week, that money went a long way; each family received apples, potatoes, greens, radishes, green tomatoes, turnips, Brussels sprouts, leeks, milk, yogurt, butter, honey, granola, and eggs.  The co-op estimates that families save an average of 15 to 20 percent each season over what they’d pay for comparable organic produce at a green market.

“What’s good this week?  Brussels sprouts!” said volunteer Fred Dowd, 77, who was manning last week’s distribution event.  Co-op members must volunteer four hours each season, and all new members must attend an orientation and training session.

Dowd, who was joined at the event by his wife Cathy, has lived in Norwood for 24 years and been affiliated with the co-op for three.  He said now that he’s retired, he enjoys being out meeting people, and appreciates that the co-op makes it easier to eat healthfully.

He recommended bags of Macoun and Empire apples to co-op member Christina Mozzicato, 30.  “They look great!” exclaimed Mozzicato, as she added the apples to her bag.

Mozzicato, who lives in Woodlawn, sung the praises of the co-op.  “It’s a great way when you’re living in the Bronx to get fresh food,” she said.  “There aren’t that many options in the Bronx.”

Indeed, Norwood especially is lacking in such options as it awaits the reopening of its only supermarket, FoodTown, which was destroyed in a December 2009 fire.  It’s slated to reopen by the end of this year.

The co-op, which is affiliated with nonprofit Just Food, also aims to support the greater good.  It accepts EBT/Food Stamps, and any leftovers at the end of distribution events are driven over to the soup kitchen at Part of the Solution in Fordham.

The summer/fall season is coming to an end next week, and members are looking forward to monthly winter deliveries from December through May that may include items like fresh jam, maple syrup, and organic chicken in addition to the produce and dairy.

While new members generally join the co-op in the summer instead of winter, Dowd encouraged them to plan ahead.  “A lot of people will stop and want to buy something,” he said of passersby.  “I tell them, ‘you can sign up for next year!’”

To learn more about the Norwood Food Co-op, hungry Bronxites can visit http://www.norwoodfoodcoop.org or call 718-514-3305.

Posted in Bronx Blog, Bronx Life, FoodComments (0)

The pastelito lady


Miguelina Moscoso's famous pastelito food stand is a fixture of West 234th St. in Kingsbridge. Photo by Irasema Romero

A regular workday for Miguelina Moscoso begins at 3:30 a.m. in her small two-bedroom apartment on Bailey Avenue in the Bronx.

While her three children sleep, the 46-year-old Dominican mother quietly begins her routine, preparing and frying 140 Dominican pastelitos, cooking a batch of sweet arroz con leche, and squeezing lemons for lemonade.

Depending on the day, Moscoso’s pastelitos may be filled with ground beef, shredded seasoned chicken, or scrambled eggs with melted cheese. She wraps the crispy pastries in foil to keep them warm before placing them inside her styrofoam cooler.

By 9:45 a.m., Moscoso pushes her shopping cart out the door. Her hair pulled into a low ponytail and covered with a black cap, she walks uphill to her vending location on West 234th Street. A small, collapsed table and the cooler are secured inside the cart, while bottles of lemonade and iced tea hang loosely from strings on the sides.

When she reaches the light pole in front of the Unique Thrift Store, a handful of clients begin to shell out $1 apiece for egg and cheese pastelitos.

“One of the things that motivates me the most is that people like what I do,” Moscoso said in Spanish. She makes a conscious effort to keep costs down in order to keep a loyal clientele who may patronize her restaurant one day. “My biggest hope is to have my own place, like Mexicans who have their own stores and sell their tacos; I would like that.”

Two years ago, Moscoso was not quite so optimistic about her economic future.

A week before Thanksgiving 2008, she lost her job in Albasini, a Bronx chocolate factory that had been struggling financially. She was working as a temporary factory worker cleaning big chocolate mixers.

She tried to make ends meet by working temporary jobs in various factories around the city.  After six months, she decided she wanted the flexibility of having her own mobile food stand. As a single mother with no relatives or close friends in New York City, Moscoso said she needed work that kept her near her children, Dioneli, 13, Michael, 16, and Carlos, 25, who also lives at home.

Moscoso decided to renew the mobile food vendor license she obtained in 1999 from the New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, an investment of $50 every two years. Her license renewal was approved in June 2009, and soon thereafter she started loading up her shopping cart with cooking from her kitchen.


Moscoso sells her $1 pastelitos in a variety of flavors, straight from her cooler. Photo by Irasema Romero

One year later, Moscoso is still waiting to obtain a “unit” permit that would allow her to prepare pastelitos on a mobile food cart on the street. The waiting list is so long for so few licenses that it could take two to three years. The chosen few food vendors are then given six months to purchase the cart and get it inspected. In 2008 Moscoso won this lottery, but her $5,000 small business loan to buy the cart was approved with only a few days to spare, and she missed the inspection deadline.

The first time Moscoso pushed her shopping cart down West 234th St., a group of Thrift Store employees invited her to stop by everyday to sell them pastelitos during their work breaks.

“To this day, I say that thanks to them I’m selling here,” Moscoso said.

From then on, customers arbitrarily take turns using the folding chair Moscoso brings for herself. The big hot sauce bottle is conveniently placed on the table next to them, and before taking the first bite they pour its spicy contents over their favorite pastelito.

For Jonathan Cartagena, who has worked at the store for eight months, it’s all about the egg and bacon pastelitos.

“She doesn’t make them daily, but when we ask her about it a lot, she brings them,” Cartagena said of his favorite pastelito, which Moscoso offers only a couple of days a week. “Eggs are a bit expensive and the bacon is especially expensive, so it’s hard for her.”

Although Moscoso makes the rare exception of offering pastelitos filled with costly ingredients like shrimp and bacon, she also chooses longer trips to a store that provides more affordable prices. The goal is to keep the pastelitos to one dollar apiece to continue attracting new customers.

Around 3:30 p.m., Moscoso pushes her cart home,  and then climbs back out to the No. 1 train heading to Manhattan’s Mi País Supermarket on 181st and St. Nicholas. Instead of buying the 10-piece package of frozen empanada dough for $1.99 in the Bronx, she gets the same product for $1.29 at this Latin American grocery store. Other ingredients are also sold at a lower price in Mi País, and Moscoso does not mind making the trip if it means cutting costs.

On an average week, Moscoso brings in approximately $650, of which half is profit, after subtracting the cost of ingredients, plastic ware, ice for drinks and transportation.

With an average net income of $1,300 a month, she covers her $348 rent, which is subsidized by the New York City Housing Authority, and household expenses for the family.

Moscoso said, with hesitation, that she also has dreams of owning a house one day.

“I know maybe what I make is too little, but there is a saying, ‘no wait is too long for happiness,” she said.

This saying is what keeps her going even after almost 20 years of leaving Dominican Republic with her then first husband. Her daughter Dioneli said her mom often mentions returning to her native country, but she does not want to think about it today. When she talks about her family in Santo Domingo, her eyes water. She recently lost an uncle in the Dominican Republic but was not able to go back home for his funeral. She misses her father, she said.

Moscoso hopes her children will have an easier life than she. She is frustrated that she can not offer them more.

“If they would help me, I would make more,” she said, because her pastelitos sell out by 2 p.m. most days. “At times we argue because I am alone for everything. I tell them to help me squeeze the lemons. I could make more.”

On holidays, Moscoso adjusts her routine to make double the batch of pastelitos.

For Norma Ahmed, who lives near the Grand Concourse, Moscoso’s reputation precedes her. A friend told her to go to the store early to experience the pastelitos as part of her trip out.

“I was surprised when I come that day and saw her there,” Ahmed said of the first time she stopped at Moscoso’s food stand.

Ahmed was instantly curious about the pastelitos, and Moscoso humbly talked about her routine as she served other customers.

“As a woman, I hope she goes on to put her little own restaurant or maybe a store front,” Ahmed said. “Who knows where we’ll see Miguelina 5, 10 years from today.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Food, Food and Beyond, Northwest Bronx, Special ReportsComments (4)

Burek: From the Balkans to the Bronx

Tony and Tina’s, a mom-and-pop joint tucked away on Arthur Avenue, has been making burek the Albanian way for more than 15 years. A story by Rania Zabaneh and Elif Ince.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Food, MultimediaComments (1)

Center Receives $200,000 to Fight Obesity and Hunger

When she received the call yesterday afternoon, Aida Martinez couldn’t believe her own ears. State Senator Pedro Espada Jr. was calling the Davidson Community Center chairwoman in person, to announce that a $200,000 grant would be delivered this week to improve nutrition conditions in the Bronx. Excellent news for a borough that was recently ranked as the least healthy county in the state.

Espada speech

Senator Pedro Espada Jr., made a speech on the necessity to change nutrition habits in the borough. (Photo by: Yasmine Guerda)

“We pay now with money, or we pay later with diabetes, obesity, cholesterol and cardiovascular diseases,” the senator said in front of a crowd of 50 people from the neighborhood.

As the founder of the Soundview Health Network, Senator Espada says he has been aware of the health problems in the Bronx for several years. “We know the challenge,” he said. “The Bronx is the obesity capital of America, the asthma capital of America, and many other titles that we don’t want anymore.”

The Davidson Community Center had been applying for a grant for five years. “We haven’t worked out all the specifics yet, but what we know so far is that we are going to use the money to buy a van so we can distribute food in various places, like senior residences, health centers and schools,” said Angel Caballero, executive director of the community center.

The money will be used to distribute free fruits and vegetables to residents in need but, more importantly, to organize healthy nutrition workshops. “We want to show people that they can keep eating what they eat but that with slightly different methods of cooking, it can be better for their health,” Martinez said. The workshops will be organized weekly, in Spanish and in English, and will include ethnic recipes, “so nobody is excluded,” she said.


The money will be used by the community center to distribute free food and to teach Bronx residents how to eat healthily. (Photo by: Yasmine Guerda)

According to a survey released at the beginning of this month, the 16th Congressional District in the Bronx , encompassing several South Bronx neighborhoods, has the highest hunger rate of the United State.  In the survey, 36 percent of the residents  said they did not have enough money to buy food in the last year.

“The situation has been getting worse and worse lately,” Martinez said. She explained that the group used to be able to put together three food distributions per week; but last year, because of the recession, it barely made it once a week. “Last week, we received two bags of potatoes, two bags of onions and a box of apples. What can we do with that?” she said. This scarcity  made residents lose faith in the community center, she said.

While in previous years the center was able to serve more than 300 families a week, fewer than 50 families a week received free food in the last couple of months. “And it’s really hard, you know, to have people come ask for food and not be able to give them any,” Martinez said.

She claimed that the $200,000 could potentially benefit close to 10,000 people in one year, depending on their needs. “We are confident that this initiative is also going to encourage business owners  to give us more food as well and participate in this effort to create a healthier Bronx,” said Angel Caballero, of the community center. “It’s about creating a positive dynamic in the neighborhood, and this money is going to help us do that. We gotta stick together!”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, FoodComments (2)

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