03 March 2007

Ninth Avenue Freeze Frame

For a time in the mid-1990s, when Times Square was reinventing itself as something tall, shiny, crowded and nauseating, I worked in the Viacom building at the northwest corner of Broadway and 44th Street. During my lunch hour, to get away from the punishing modernity of it all, I would often walk over to Ninth Avenue and troll the blocks south of 42nd Street. At the time that strip had not heard the words "development" or "gentrifcation." It still had a hardscrabble, working-class neighborhood feel to it, and felt like a genuine slice of New York.

A decade later, that character has been eroded a bit (all bow your heads in memory of the shuttering and demolition of the holy Supreme Macaroni Co.), but from 40th to about 35th, walking the east side of the street, there are still enough landmarks to string a history along. Just below 40th is one of the more unapologetic dives in all of NYC, the Holland Bar. (Stubbornly keeping Christmas alive in early March in the above picture.) It's narrow, it's mean and it's dark. Any bar this close to the Port Authority is. Don't enter without confidence and be prepared to order a simple beer or a good, strong drink.

(I was sad to see that the Bellevue Bar, another long-standing dive a few doors north of the Holland, had closed its doors. It had been around since 1912.)

A little further south, at 38th Street, is the Esposito Pork Shop, which has been on or around Ninth Avenue for more than 100 years. This place displays its meat with pride, so if you're a squeamish vegan, don't even cross the threshold. Homemade sausages are a specialty, and you can order game such as pheasant, quail and venison. Your suckling pig needs can also be met. It's still in the same family, run by the grandsons of the founder. And that perky pig sure looks happy that it's about to be slaughtered and put into casings.

A few yards more and things get really Italian, as in blood feuds. Side by side are Manganaro's Hero Boy and Manganaro's Grosseria Italiano. One's a sprawling, slick hero sandwich joint where big equals good and the cooking is done in a volume well suited to the armed forces. The other is an old world ethnic grocery store where traditions and decor haven't been altered in decades. Wanna know if the two stores get along? Take a look at the sandwich board outside the second shop that defiantly tells you that the Grosseria has NOTHING to do with Hero Boy.

The nature of the feud begs understanding, but it's gone on for generations. The two brothers who run the businesses, Salvatore Dell'Orto and James Dell'Orto, have not spoken in decades (their children also do not communicate, and the daughter preparing the sandwiches behind the Grosseria counter is by all accounts a nutso anger junkie). Law suits fighting for the right to use the family name have flown back and forth for years. The sticking point seems to be who invented and/or gets the honor of making that cheeseball Italian specialty: the six-foot sub. A court ruling in 2003 apparently forbid the Grosseria from attaching its name to its subs. As for the food, it's good in both places. There, I said it. So, come and get me, fratelli Manganaro!

Another block and you find the small Trio French Bakery, which advertises brioche in the front window, but also Irish Soda Bread. It's a simple place. Not much in the way of decor. Charmingly sparten. You never hear that much about it, but it must have its fans—it's been here forever.

Finally, between 36th and 37th is Longo Bros. Wine and Liquor. Their name is emblazoned at the top of the four-story building, so one guesses they were here from the building's erection. This is not a fancy liquor store; the wine selection is quite pedestrian. But it's a serviceable purveyor of booze situated in an interesting space.

So, wine, bread, groceries, meat and a cool drink after your shopping is done. Ninth Avenue in the upper 30s still gets the job done.

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