A Bronx tale: From tough 'hood to thriving community

Brooklyn can keep its food trucks. The Bronx has something much cooler: footpath raw bars offering clams and oysters on the half shell. We're not talking high-end experiences, where your seafood is washed down with a glass of chilled bubbly; rather, outlets like Randazzo's Seafood are no-frills joints aimed at locals, who stop by for a quick slurp and a chat.

Anywhere else in New York, Randazzo's, which has been serving up seafood for almost a century, would be a rarity. The Bronx, however, is full of long-running family businesses. Unlike Manhattan's tourist-friendly Little Italy, the Bronx is the real thing, an authentic Italian neighbourhood where grandpas play bocce in Ciccarone Park while their wives pick up the ingredients for lunch from specialist purveyors: fresh pasta here, tinned Italian tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil there, freshly baked bread just around the corner.

As we meander along the main drag, Arthur Avenue, on a neighbourhood food tour, our preconceptions about this much-maligned borough are constantly challenged. The Bronx's bad reputation dates to the 1980s, when the crack epidemic ravaged the district. Those days are long gone, however; what remains is the wonderful food providores. We wander happily from one pastry shop to the next, munching greedily on ricotta-filled cannelloni and delicate sfogliatella, stopping in at the mozzarella shop and the wonderfully named Calabria Pork Shop, where soppressata festoon the ceiling like chandeliers.

The Bronx has long been considered a tough 'hood. The notorious Mafia boss John Gotti was born in the Bronx, but his parents decided the area was too rough, and moved to Brooklyn when he was 10 years old. Nonetheless, the Mafia is part of the Bronx's history too, and its heyday is recalled, with a heavy dose of nostalgia, in a new Broadway musical, A Bronx Tale.

If the name sounds familiar, you may remember the 1993 movie starring Robert De Niro and Chazz Palminteri and directed by De Niro, based on Palminteri's one-man show. Palminteri is a Bronx-boy-made-good – as, by the way, are fashion designers Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren (born Ralph Lifshitz). Palminteri's autobiographical story focuses on a young boy who has to choose between two different role models, his father and the local mob boss, Sonny.

The musical draws on some serious star power, from the director – De Niro back for another spin, this time with co-director Jerry Zaks – to the composer, Alan Menken, known for the likes of Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Menken's songs are critical to conjuring up the era, with their weaving together of doo-wop harmonies and R&B beats. So are the sets, which feature fire escapes and Arthur Street shopfronts. We are delighted to recognise some of the shopfronts that are still around today: Madonia Brothers Bakery, Gino's Pastry and the Calabria Pork Store.

This is not the first time that a Broadway musical has celebrated one of New York's underprivileged neighbourhoods; West Side Story did something similar many decades ago. At least some Bronx locals are delighted that it is finally their turn.

"I think it's beautiful that the Bronx is being showcased," Paul Ramirez says. Thirtysomething Ramirez epitomises the new face of the Bronx. He and his brother Anthony, children of Puerto Rican migrants who grew up in the Bronx, are involved in a range of projects to revive their neighbourhood. That includes everything from producing Bronx-branded merchandise to launching the Bronx Beer Hall, a bar specialising in micro-brews that is tucked into the Arthur Avenue Retail Market.

The Ramirez brothers grew up while the crack epidemic was at its height. "There were empty lots, burnt down buildings – we weren't allowed out by ourselves past the street corner," Ramirez says.

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The most remarkable aspect of the current flowering of the Bronx, according to Ramirez, is the fact that it has been driven by the community.

"It wasn't developers, it wasn't government; we realised the only way to improve the community was to do it ourselves," he says. "Whether it's not-for-profit organisations running employment programs or small businesses opening up, things are changing. Outsiders are beginning to see that there is value here; value that we have always seen."

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/new-york

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FLY

Qantas and Virgin Airlines fly to New York via cities including Los Angeles, Dallas and San Francisco. See qantas.com and virgin.com.au

STAY

The elegant Algonquin Hotel, just two blocks off Broadway, was famously the birthplace of The New Yorker magazine as well as being the favoured haunt of literary types including Dorothy Parker. Rates start at $199; early bookings score a 15 per cent advance purchase discount. algonquinhotel.com

BOOK

Don't miss out on tickets to that must-catch show; with Broadway Inbound, you can book seats before you leave home without paying a mark-up. Bookings can be made through your preferred travel provider. For the latest on what's playing, see broadwaycollection.com

EAT

Celebrity chef Charlie Palmer's flagship restaurant, Aureole, boasts a Michelin star and a convenient 42nd Street location that makes it perfect for before or after show dining. aureolenyc.com

TOUR

Big Apple Greeter offers free tours of New York's neighbourhoods led by local volunteers, including an Arthur Avenue Tour in the Bronx. bigapplegreeter.org

Ute Junker travelled courtesy of Broadway Inbound and the Algonquin Hotel.

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HELLO DOLLY

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