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I need not remind you of Fordham’s mantra: “Fordham is my school. New York is my campus.” Upon hearing this phrase, recited ad nauseam by our fearless President (and even further ingrained by the banner outside of McGinley), your mind probably draws up the grassy fields of Central Park, or the potent scent of urine on a hot Manhattan day. The Bronx, though, is probably not your first thought. You “go to school in New York City,” after all. We live in a culturally diverse neighborhood that gets the short straw. It’s kind of like Brooklyn’s quiet sister; she’s there, but not flashy enough for you to actively brag about her.
There are people in this neighborhood who could help bolster your Bronx Pride. You already know the faces of Fordham’s local celebrities. Freddy the Barber, Churry from your favorite liquor store, and obviously Suits. Beyond these familiar faces are some under the radar Bronx locals, sages if you will, who could offer some advice, some laughs, good company, and some antipasto (if they’re feeling generous).
The other week, while you were crowding around John Kasich as he chowed down on a three course Italian meal at our local karaoke spot, a tradition of over twenty years went on nearly undisturbed. Tucked away at the tables opposite Mike’s Deli in the Arthur Ave Market, a group of men gathered to feast. Kasich’s campaign manager even attempted to direct the presidential nominee towards them. You may be thinking, “who in the world would be important enough to meet John Kasich?”
Enter: The ROMEO Society
You may have passed these men before and had no idea that they were members of this under-the-radar-mock-fraternity and fully exclusive Arthur Ave establishment. Every Thursday at noon, with the exception of the weeks during Christmas and Easter, this group assembles to partake in the most natural activity known to man: eating Italian food with friends. How many of you can say you have ever followed your calendar that meticulously?
What, may you ask, does ROMEO stand for? No, it’s not a society of misguided lovestruck teens like the ones you studied junior year of high school. This is something different. They are the Society of Retired Old Men Eating Out. You may laugh a bit at the name, but this ain’t your grandma’s romance. This group is comprised of ten to fifteen retired native New Yorkers. I’m not going to list all of their names, but let’s suffice it to say more than 3 are named John, Mike, or variations of the two. The cast isn’t always the same; some live in Florida for half of the year, others have aged out, and a few are just plain ole busy. But, this standing reservation always garners attendees. Some of the men have known each other since birth, back when a quarter could buy you more than 15 minutes on a parking meter. One John and Mike duo is a mentor-mentee pairing, as the age difference between the members varies widely.
Brought together by the late Angelo Loia, or “The Rooster,” as the men called him, this is a group of men that mostly hail from Staten Island academia who have watched the Bronx grow and evolve. Joe and John, the fearless leaders, are senior members who retired from teaching in 1995 (yes, before most of us were even alive, these men were done working). On this particular Thursday, the crew was made up of five PE teachers from Staten Island, one principal and one superintendent. Doesn’t it make you smile to think of your favorite History teacher, baseball coach, or PE teacher out there right now, passionately discussing politics over pasta e fagioli?
The camaraderie between the ROMEO Society is something you may have seen if you’ve ever experienced your dad and his friends rag on each other. Their bond, rooted in an impenetrable brotherhood, is one of men who have known each other just a little too long. They remind you that nicknames stick, so be careful, because twenty years from now, you might posthumously still be known as “The Rooster.”
The ROMEO Society knows the Bronx. Many of them were born on the streets we live on. They call Hughes and Hoffman home. In the past twenty years, they’ve not only seen the neighborhood change, but they have also watched each other age. “The hair has gotten whiter…and less. Bellies have come out, I used to wear a 34, now I’m a 38,” John from Yonkers admits.
“The neighborhood has gotten smaller…The area has shrunk. We’ve lost people…[but] the best part about the Bronx is the ‘the’ in front of it. You don’t say, ‘The Brooklyn,’do you? It’s not ‘The New Jersey.’ It’s The Bronx.”
This crowd also knows that Arthur Ave is the True Little Italy. Their Thursday begins with fresh clams from the fish market next-door. If you have ever been tempted by the display of oysters on ice outside on your way to Rite Aid, here are your tried-and-true taste testers. As more members appear, the men will move inside of the Arthur Ave Market, commandeering tables around Mike’s Deli. A sea of red sauce coats every dish in sight. Plates of spaghetti and meatballs in red sauce and fresh bread litter their tables. There might be a salad mixed in there, though this palette-cleanser is for sure covered with sharp parmesan and olives. They’re carbo-loading for the weekend, obviously.
The right to be selective, critical even, in discerning the best places on Arthur Ave is a right earned by these longtime customers of local shops and hideaways. They know that prosciutto di parma and prosciutto toscano are not the same thing. They will not stand by and watch mozzarella be reduced to it’s saran wrapped, cold-cut, grocery store form. They laid out their preferences with conviction, and a knowledge that could only be supported by experiencing meatballs from the Italian grandmother of your dreams. Based on their extensive knowledge, I had to ask for their personalized Yelp review of the neighborhood hot spots.
The men all concur that there is no other bakery on Arthur Ave better than DeLillo’s.
“The best cheeses are at Casa della Mozz, and what’s that deli down the street…?” John from Yonkers starts to ask.
“Oh Teitel’s!” John born on Hughes responds, “what’s the…”
“Borgatti” Joe cuts in [referencing the ravioli shop off of Arthur] “How about the bread place, though?”
“Addeo!” someone responds, but the group responds with an unenthused “eh”.
As the men finish up, I ask them one final question. I needed life advice, you see. The token superintendent responded to me with a powerful statement, “Live for every day because you’re not sure what’s gonna come for you tomorrow.” The group nods in agreement, and veers off to reminisce about the childhood Christmas that Mike from Yonkers fell asleep and got locked inside St. Martin’s church on 183rd and Belmont. Apparently, his parents put out a 13 state search, and when Mike got home, he explained, “My mom hugged me, told me she loved me, and then slapped me across the face.”
John leaves me with this: “You know how everyone goes to a psychiatrist? Well, I come here every Thursday.” This statement hits home a bit. It made me think about the people I spend my days with. Will my friends be dining with me when I’m in my 70’s? Should I have a psychiatrist back-up plan?
Next time you stop by the Arthur Ave Market in daylight, look out for the grey ROMEO Society shirts. The members promised us that when the weather gets warmer, we’ll start to see more T-Shirts on Arthur. The group is recognizable, welcoming, and always surrounded by phenomenal Bronx food. In case you’re wondering about those shirts, by the way, they were an idea concocted and birthed in the Marketplace. You, too, could have one made when it comes time to join your own Society of Retired Old Men Eating Out.