I haven’t written much lately. Or, to be more accurate, I haven’t posted much. It’s a combination of work, some real estate matters and the fact that I’m not in Umbria right now (or Tuscany, for that matter). So I pretty much ran out of new material from there.
But I am on Staten Island most of the time there days, and being here often reminds me of how Italian this borough is. Somewhere just shy of 40 percent of its half-million residents claim Italian descent, and this comes out in various ways, from fig trees in the backyards of old houses, to some architectural kitsch to approximate the villas of the old country.
It’s not all kitsch, though. In the well-heeled neighborhood of Grymes Hill, good taste
mostly prevails. I was walking around one afternoon, and walked past this house. We used to call it the Villa Volpe, because John Volpe, the former chancellor of the College of Staten Island, used to live there. And across the street is Casa Belvedere, now an Italian cultural center, complete with bocce court and a kitchen sponsored by the food importer Colavita. It’s sort of Italianate in design, like a lot of the grand houses on the island, but it in fact was the Stirn-Roebling mansion, built by relatives of the engineers who built the Brooklyn Bridge (also relatives of Caroline, my neighbor, in fact). If you walk around the Villa Volpe and squint a little, you might think you’re somewhere else. Reportedly, one of the Guide Michelin inspectors lived on Staten Island during the inspection tour a dozen years ago, and liked Staten Island because it reminded him of being in Italy.
Some people might get the idea that the island got its Italian vibe from those idiots who starred in MTV’s Jersey Shore, most of whom came from the south shore of the island and speak with distinct Brooklyn accents. But Italians moved onto the island early on. Back in the 1840s, the Italian hero Giuseppe Garibaldi fled a failed revolution and moved his with his compatriot (if it can be called that; Italy wasn’t yet a nation), Antonio Meucci. In the succeeding decades, Italians settled in the neighborhoods now called Rosebank, Arrochar and Tompkinsville. Garibaldi and Meucci left something behind: Meucci’s house is now a museum dedicated to the two men, and you can stop in a read Garibaldi’s notes, or see some of his uniforms. They also hold Italian language classes there, at gentle prices.
Other Italians came to stay, but not for good, or the whole year on Staten Island. Beach colonies grew up along the south shore, and Italians rented or bought bungalows not far
from the beach. My own grandparents, Carlo Ancona and Rosa Urso, originally from Castellammare del Golfo in Sicily, bought a bungalow not far from the home of William
Vanderbilt, one of the famous clan. (Yes, they hailed from Staten Island.) I spent the first few summers of my life in that bungalow. My mother and her sisters moved to the bungalow with us kids, while the dads lived in Brooklyn and went to work during the week and stayed with us on the weekends. [Side note: My grandmother died when I was young, but I continue to marvel at the fact that she bought two houses, one in Brooklyn and the bungalow on Staten Island, in the middle of the Depression.
Naturally, where Italians go, so does their food. And the island has salumerie and even supermarkets that would make a Manhattan foodie go crazy, especially since the prices are for real people, not the masters of the universe who want to dabble in making pasta like the chef at Marea told them to do.
I’ll confess, there’s a lot of dreck; the kind of inauthentic places that think bruschetta is some chopped vegetables that goes atop bread (it’s the toasted bread, actually), or that serve overcooked spaghetti on the side of a meat or fish dish. But Staten Island has a few really good pizzerias: Denino’s, Joe & Pat’s, and Lee’s Tavern.
But if you want to experience what it’s like to be near the Italian coast on a warm summer day, reserve a table on a Sunday afternoon for Basilio Inn, in Arrochar, the
town where my father-in-law Joe grew up. It’s in a 19th century house, which has always been a tavern. They grow a lot of their own produce, and there’s a bocce court out back. The Asperti family are the latest owners, and they came over to the U.S. in the 1960s. They pay a little homage to Italian-American, as opposed to Italian, food, but they have their limits. Once, a patron complained about the mussels, which are served steamed with white wine, like you’d find anywhere in Italy. “Where’s the sauce?” “We do it this way.” “But I want sauce.” The owner gave the guy $5 to go up to the deli to buy some Ragù, and he offered to heat it up in the microwave.
You can go the DIY route, too. There are lots of local pork stores, or salumerie. And the local franchise Pastosa’s has, I think, three branches on Staten Island. They’re a
little bigger and each one has its own personality. The one in my neighborhood leans a little international and is like a mini-Eataly. But for a full-on Italian food shopping experience, you have to go to LaBella Marketplace, all the way down on the southern tip of the island. It’s a long ride, even from our house. But it’s worth it. They’ve got all sorts of products, from limonata (Italian lemon soda) to packaged cornetti (the Italian equivalent of a croissant, often filled with cream or preserves) to mind bending assortments of olives, cheese, olive oils, and pasta. Espresso beans and coffee are reasonably priced. There’s an Italian-style bar where you can have an espresso and bombolone–think of a cream-filled doughnut) for around $3. The fish counter has tiny clams, octopus, sardines, branzini and orate (sea bass and sea bream, from Italy and Greece). And if you’re really into it you can even buy Italian laundry detergent.
There’s lots more, but this post has already gone on for too long. Maybe I’ll do a part II soon.
[The photo at the top of the page: The Tuscan Garden at Snug Harbor Botanical Garden and Cultural Center]