As Arthur Avenue settles into Phase 2 of reopening, the Bronx’s historic Little Italy has become something brand new: A piazza, complete with 100 tables set up on the sidewalks and into the street.
Peter Madonia, chair of the Belmont Business Improvement District and the owner of Madonia Bakery, said it’s a plan he’s excited about for its own sake, regardless of the pandemic.
“Even if everything went back to normal tomorrow, would people enjoy this? I think they would,” he said. “We’re expanding our own vision to something we never thought about before. In a crisis, there is sometimes opportunity, and there’s an opportunity to create a real piazza in the middle of the Bronx that never existed before.”
Though each restaurant on Arthur Avenue is ultimately in charge of its own reopening, Madonia worked with street design expert Sam “Gridlock Sam” Schwartz to come up with a schematic — which isn’t 100 percent final — for what the entire strip could look like. (See full schematic below.) According to the Bronx Times, "the street closure will likely begin around Friday, July 10th as the Department of Transportation has already granted forms of temporary approval for the streetside al fresco dining plan."
The basic idea: Three blocks of Arthur Avenue would be closed to most traffic on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights — plus Sunday afternoon and evening — with a 15-foot-wide space in the middle of the road for emergency vehicles and pedestrians. About two dozen dining establishments would be allowed to stick four-person tables into the street, so long as they’re six feet apart and separated from traffic by some kind of barrier. And sidewalks would need ramps to ensure that people with accessibility challenges can get up and down.
Regina Delfino, the owner of Mario’s restaurant, said she has considered getting six concrete barriers “like the ones you see on the highway” to place around her in-street tables.
“I went to Westchester and looked at what they’re doing, and I saw all these concrete barriers and they had painted them white,” said Delfino. “Once you paint them and put some flowers on each side of them, they actually don’t look bad! Anything you can pick up and bring inside, that’s not going to protect your customers.” (As of last weekend, Mario’s had up highway-style barriers made of plastic.)
Beyond blocking off tables, the most important step for keeping both customers and restaurant staff safe is putting in place new sanitary precautions. Delflino, like multiple restaurant owners Gothamist spoke to, said she’ll require staff to wear masks, limit the number of people allowed in the kitchen, and set up multiple hand sanitizing stations. Then there’s the psychological component — do both staff and patrons feel comfortable returning to a restaurant, even if it’s outside?
“This past week has exceeded my expectations,” said Maria Di Rende, the owner of Enzo’s, which opened last Monday. In addition to 13 tables set up on the front sidewalk and in the street, she has six tables in a backyard patio that can be used during Phase 2.
“The customers are ecstatic we’re open — each day has been busier and busier,” Di Rende said. “It may not be normal as of yet, but it’s better than perfect.”
One thing that sets Arthur Avenue apart from other dining districts in New York City is that 80 percent of its patrons come from 10 to 40 miles outside the neighborhood, according to a Belmont BID marketing study. Many regulars live in parts of suburban New York, New Jersey and Connecticut that are further along in their reopenings, and local restaurateurs say that while health concerns kept people away prior to the shutdown, the Bronx’s relative lag has been tough for business.
“Right before that last day when we closed — March 16th — we had at least 120 reservations cancel along with two different bus tours,” said Ralph Napolitano, the co-owner of Ann & Tony’s. “So we’re talking almost $10,000 where we were being hit, right off the bat. We were like, God this is not going to be good going forward.”
But for the last several weeks, Napolitano said he’s been getting calls from his regulars in New Jersey who keep asking if he’s open yet.
“We have a core of customers who are going to come and say hello — even if they just pass by, get a cannoli or something,” he said.
There’s a catch to all this. A dream scenario for the restaurants on Arthur Avenue would be to have 400 people eating Italian food and enjoying each other’s company in the open air. What’s also true: A photo of 400 people eating Italian food and enjoying each other’s company is ripe for entering the “look at these schmucks” album of public shaming. (When diners are at their tables, they won’t be required to wear masks.)
The restaurant owners Gothamist spoke to weren’t too worried about it.
“In this society, in this climate we have now, of course there’s gonna be a backlash,” said Napolitano. “There’ll be one person sitting there, taking a picture and putting it on social media and saying, ‘look at these guys over here!’ That’s just the way we live."
“One thing — we love families to come with little kids and grandparents and all, and sometimes the little kids get out hand,” he added. “So I’ll walk over very nicely and say, ‘I understand, but there’s other people here…’ So we’ll do it like that. If they’re standing up, roaming around without a mask, whatever it is, they can get fined also. So I already know my language on that: ‘I don’t want to see you get a fine, so stay in your chair.’”
Gina Delfino, the owner of Mario’s, isn’t bothered by people gathering, either.
“When they opened up Westchester, I went there and I was jealous!” she said. “There were so many people, and I wasn’t like, ‘Look at these dumb assholes,’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, why can’t we do this yet? It’s not fair! I want to do this.’”
Delfino, who’s father died of the coronavirus in early April, said it was a tough few months for herself and the family business, which her great-grandfather opened in 1919. Now, she’s extremely eager to get the restaurant on a path towards being fully operational again.
“All [the staff] was on unemployment, and I know unemployment was paying them very well,” she said. “They’re going to come back and make a quarter of what they were making on unemployment, I don’t know how happy they’re going to be. So if we don’t get the customers — you just hope that everybody comes back.”
“It’s not an accident to be in business for 100 years,” said Madonia. “You have to figure things out through a lot of stuff! Their passion is to get open again and serve their customers.
“My grandfather opened the bakery in 1918, right before the second wave of the Spanish Flu,” he continued. “He never closed — I don’t remember anyone in the family talking about it. They went through the Depression, went through World War II, went through a lot in this neighborhood. I use it for myself to get out of bed in the morning, to say, ‘How are we going to get through this uncharted territory?’ But then I realize, maybe it’s not that uncharted.”