Throw out your melatonin. Forget about renewing your passport or changing dollars into rupees, yen or euros. You can travel to Bombay, Kyoto, Naples or Lisbon tomorrow without having to weather security lines, long flights or time zone changes. How? Just hop in the car or use the rails and you are there. That’s what many of your neighbors do when they get the urge to visit a place full of the culture and atmosphere of another country.
As Riverside resident and Gourmet magazine food journalist Colman Andrews says: “On the West Coast you have a lot of Latin American and Mexican communities, and, of course, Asian. But you don’t really have European enclaves like you do in the Northeast. We are lucky. We have access to fabulous Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Greek and even Egyptian neighborhoods –– and food!”
He’s right. Fairfield County residents live within easy reach of myriad neighborhoods where immigrants have created homes away from home –– pockets of towns or boroughs where transplanted foreigners have opened markets, restaurants, specialty shops and cultural centers that remind them of the Old Country.
Autumn is a wonderful time to discover these rich ethnic enclaves. Bring a friend to share the thrills of discovery, and grab a satchel to carry the delights you are sure to find along the way. We provide some suggestions, but in nearly every case there are more choices than we could begin to cover.
From Butchers and Bakers to Shuckers and Roasters
Arthur Avenue, Bronx, New York
Arthur Avenue is the ethnic destination closest to Fairfield County and arguably the most popular. It is food in motion: beans roasting, bread baking, oysters and clams leaping out of their shells, pasta drying, and tomatoes and cheeses ripening. Walk the streets surrounding the intersection of 187th Street and Arthur Avenue in the Bronx and you feel as if you are in a Disney movie where the food is positively alive –– part of a happy cast of animated characters that also includes enthusiastic purveyors selling eggplants, pane de casa and sausages as you stroll by. But there’s nothing celluloid about what you’ll find in this Little Italy.
Mike’s Deli is definitely a draw, with its hanging cheeses and dry sausages, its roasted fresh peppers, its mozzarella and, best of all, son David’s nonstop babble about how good his deli is. It’s located within a sprawling marketplace where you can buy kitchenware, vegetables, groceries like prized San Marzano tomatoes, basil plants in summertime and specialty meats like bresaola any
time of the year. There is even a small area with tables for a lunch of sandwiches and a soda.
Darien resident Mark Carta –– attorney by day, gourmet cook by night –– creates his own line of herb-infused olive oils and two varieties of chocolate truffles, which he packages with his “Magna Carta” labels and bestows on a lucky circle of friends at Christmastime. He regularly drives to Arthur Avenue to taste and bring home what he calls “the fresh, fresh, freshest” Italian cured meats, cheeses, oils, vinegars, fresh pastas and sauces. You’ll see rabbit carcasses in windows of butchers’ shops and fat globes of provolone hanging from the rafters in salumerias.
Carta’s enthusiasm for Arthur Avenue is matched by that of Greenwich native Bob DeAngelo who says, “I go all the time! I’ve got a passion for the place. But it’s in my blood.” Fine as the selection of Italian specialty foods is, these two Fairfield County residents –– and fellow Fairfield County food aficionados Adolph Tomaselli of New Canaan and Andrew LaSala of Wilton — agree that a visit to Arthur Avenue is far from being just about the food. DeAngelo expresses it well when he says, “It’s about savoring the walk around the whole area –– the people you say hi to, the butchers, bakers and oyster shuckers you’ve come to know. I have taken kids and board members from the Greenwich Boys and Girls Club where I work. It’s so close, you can jump in the car and go on a moment’s notice, and everyone loves it.”
Make a day of it and allow time for stops at the New York Botanical Garden or the Bronx Zoo, both of which are close by. But a word to the wise: Take in the flora and the fauna before you fill your carryall with fixings from Arthur Avenue. You wouldn’t want a hungry lion or Venus fly-trap snatching your bag full of sopressata or that luscious hunk of Parmigiano Rocca. Don’t be surprised if you feel like a child in a candy store.
From Kimonos and Kudzu to Soba and Sashimi
Edgewater, New Jersey
If you haven’t seen Manhattan from the New Jersey side of the Hudson, that’s reason enough to visit Mitsuwa Marketplace, which has centers in several American cities. This enormous commercial enclave sits just over the George Washington Bridge in Edgewater, New Jersey. The hangar-size marketplace is filled with everything from extra-thin cuts of beef for shabu shabu to an extraordinary and far-from-commonplace selection of Japanese fish, sushi toppings, soybean products, fresh noodles, green teas, beans, mochi ice cream, sake, fruit and vegetables.
There are also cases of delicate Japanese sweets –– wagashi –– and even you’ll-swear-it’s-real replica food, a staple near the entrance of many Japanese restaurants to inform and lure potential diners. The entire complex is clean, and although you won’t find a cultural center here — or a shrine — there are plenty of people speaking their native tongue; you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped off the plane into Tokyo.
Steps from the market are a restaurant, a bookstore with both Japanese and Japanese-inspired English-language titles (check out the cookbooks translated from Japanese and the stationery sets that make great gifts), a spacious, immaculate and elegant Shiseido Cosmetics boutique where consultants can provide makeovers, and Mars New York, which is chock-a-block with everything from Japanese toys, furniture and tatami mats to papers, kimonos, fans and tea sets.
The variety of cafeteria-style Japanese eateries inside the marketplace offers seating with a view — particularly of passersby — and perhaps better nibbles than at a nearby restaurant. However, the second floor of the restaurant provides fabulous views across to Manhattan. See if you can persuade the waiter to serve you just tea.
Archaeologist and Greenwich resident Nancy Barnard considers Mitsuwa a find “if you want to have a real taste of Japanese culture.” But Mitsuwa is not a discovery Nancy dug up herself. She was led to Edgewater by her good friend Kirk Ferguson of nearby Katonah, who Nancy calls “an encyclopedia of unusual places.” She goes on to say, “Kirk often leads groups from Greenwich on jaunts in and around New York. Whether it’s Cobble Hill or Astoria, Kirk comes armed with brochures she’s created from her own research and hands them to us to read as we travel to our destination.”
Locals visit the Mitsuwa Marketplace for fresh ingredients to create authentic Japanese meals at home. When you’ve culled what you want from the gleaming supermarket aisles, pack your trove in
the car and, before heading home, stroll the tree-lined promenade adjacent to the marketplace. Here the expanse of blue Hudson, with Manhattan in brilliant silhouette, will drive home how exhilarating a change of perspective can be.
From Sitars and Saris to Curries and 22-Karat Gold
Jackson Heights, New York
Only three express subway stops from Manhattan, you’ll find Little India –– a series of blocks along 74th Street between Roosevelt and 37th Avenue in Queens –– where Bombay meets Bollywood in a colorful explosion of groceries and emporiums selling everything from cardamom pods and basmati rice to sequined saris, bolts of raw silk, silver-tipped furniture and golden bangles. Just ask Greenwich resident Lucy Day who first made the easy jaunt to Queens last year.
Lucy had heard about Jackson Heights and thought a visit might provide inspiration for her and fellow Renaissance Ball committee members. The group was working on “Jewels of India,” the theme for a gala evening benefiting the Bruce Museum. They were not disappointed!
As Lucy recalls with enthusiasm, “We had such fun! We went as a group and spent the day buying saris and jewelry, having lunch and taking photos. I even found a turban for my husband to wear at the ball.”
For all things Indian, stop at Butala Emporium and browse. You can spend a few dollars on incense or quite a bit more on intricately detailed furniture and even authentic Indian instruments.
The shopping in Little India is so lush, you’d best eat first to ensure you’ll have the fuel you need to keep you going. There are plenty of places to eat, but none more lauded than the Jackson Diner, which serves a huge buffet at lunchtime. Though it’s located in what was once a diner, the Jackson is an Indian restaurant fit for a raja and consistently recognized by critics for top-notch cuisine and stellar service. But be forewarned: Hot means hot here, so request mild unless you come prepared with a fire extinguisher. Later, if you tire of looking at gold jewelry, you can stop at a sweet shop and try gillapi, a delicious golden Bangladeshi dessert that’s guaranteed to restore your energy so you can continue to explore.
Enthusiasm for Queens’ Little India is seconded by 2007 Renaissance Ball cochairman Jean-Doyen de Montaillou, who says, “I’ve been to India many times, and Jackson Heights really reflects what it’s like to visit that country. I recommend it to anyone who wants to experience an exotic new place — without any jet lag!”
Before Indian markets opened in Stamford, Shonu Patel of Greenwich would take her mother Padmini to Jackson Heights to shop. “It was hard to find the ingredients she liked,” says Shonu. “You could always pick up bitter gourd, jack fruit and green eggplant there.” And sweets like kaju (a cashew confection much favored by Indians). Many of her friends would order large trays of the sweets to serve at their dinner parties.
From Socrates and Souvlaki to Feta and Filo
Astoria, Queens, New York
Yes, he had Lotus Eaters, Cyclopes and Sirens to contend with. But if Odysseus had to name the most difficult challenge of warring and wandering twenty-plus years away from Ithaca, he might very well answer, “a nice, home-cooked Greek meal.” We are more fortunate. Octopus drizzled with strong Greek olive oil, taramosalata, tsatsiki, fresh grilled porgies or a swordfish kebab with grilled eggplant and zucchini as accompaniment –– these and other excellent Greek dishes are readily available to us in Astoria, Queens.
Astoria has seen several waves of immigrants, beginning in the seventeenth century with the Dutch and Germans. The influx of people from Greece began around 1910 and lasted twenty years. Astoria is said to have the largest number of people of Greek origin outside of Athens. No wonder it abounds with Greek eateries and shops you can often identify at a glance, graced by Hellenic blue-and-white awnings. And you can still hear the language spoken on the street and in shops thanks to Greek Americans’ pride in their language and efforts to preserve their heritage by attending Greek Orthodox schools and churches, visiting Greek doctors and supporting Greek organizations in their area.
Westport resident Kalia Filippaki, who was born and raised in Athens, says that thanks to satellite TV, phone calls and yearly visits, she stays in close touch with her homeland. But she readily and laughingly admits that she and her Greek-born husband often drive to Astoria to help ease any homesickness they might feel in between visits to Athens. They make the drive especially to fetch hard-to- find-Greek cheeses, desserts and wine –– and to dine at one of their favorite tavernas. Kalia encourages Fairfield County residents in search of the Greek experience to have lunch at a place like Agnanti and linger: “Lingering is something we do in Greece. It’s more like Paris, where you have a café outdoors and you meet friends to socialize and really discuss things –– not just to eat.”
Aphrodite Skeadas of Greenwich, who was born in Sparta and is a fabulous cook, makes frequent treks to Astoria to purchase “incredible” feta cheese and the incomparable kefalograviera that she enjoys as a table cheese. When she runs out of olive oil — her family owns olive groves in Greece — she will buy a bottle of her favorite at the Titan grocery store. And special spoon desserts made with quince or sour cherry from Artopolis. “The pastries there are so beautifully presented,” says Aphrodite. Just before Easter Sunday, she and a group of friends are sure to pick up unleavened breads and Greek sea bass there.
Odysseus faced perils on his journey home. You, on the other hand, can enjoy educational and enlightening artistic delights before comfortably making your way back to Fairfield County.
From Salt Cod and Samba to Fado and Flan
Ironbound, New Jersey
Walk the streets of Ironbound and you are sure to hear paleio, Portuguese for “happy chatter.” Once home to the largest concentration of Portuguese immigrants in the United States, this Newark neighborhood has, in recent years, become equally popular with families from Brazil, Ecuador and Mexico. So the happy chatter you’ll hear as you stroll is sometimes Portuguese, sometimes Spanish. This confluence of cultures has only added zest to Ironbound and, especially, to the restaurants, bakeries and markets that line its main artery, Ferry Street. It’s no wonder Fairfield County folk with an appetite for authentic caldeirada da marisco, chouriços or bacalhau return to Ironbound again and again –– and always armed with an empty tote and an appetite.
Colman Andrews, who first visited Ironbound twenty years ago, advises wisely: “Don’t just go to a restaurant. Walk around Ironbound and smell the aromas! There are bakeries with Portuguese sweet buns and rolls. There’s a wine shop that specializes in Portuguese wines –– a selection well beyond just ports and madeiras. There’s one market for fish, another for cheeses and sausages. There’s even a hardware store that seems conventional enough until you notice there’s a whole selection of paella pans and wine-making supplies.”
Luciana Grasso is a native of Minas Gerais, Brazil, and often goes to Ironbound for the Portuguese specialities she remembers from her childhood — like jiló (resembles eggplant), dried bacalhau (practically a necessity at Eastertime) and picanha, a beef steak that she loves grilled. “It’s like a rump steak. I put some Kosher salt on it and just put it on the barbecue. Very simple.” Since fresh yucca is often not available in her local markets, Lucianna will pick up some at Seabra’s, a must-stop for everything Portuguese; she always returns home with rice puddings that she purchases from the Riviera Bakery.
Her favorite restaurant in the area is Fernandes, where she and her husband and their friends will make a night of it for rodizio, the fabled barbecue of Brazilian and Portuguese steak houses. If you go, be prepared to eat more than you thought humanly possible. Fernandes is justly famous for its sangria. It’s a bit off Ironbound, but you’re fine once you land in its parking lot.
Many Ironbound restaurants have both a dining and a bar/grill entrance. If you’re smart, you’ll join those in the know and choose the bar where the prato do dia –– dish of the day –– is chalked on a blackboard, where Fado music mixes with samba and where the lunch crowd lingers contentedly well into the afternoon.