Teitel Brothers: A Jewish presence in Little Italy

Established in 1915 by Austrian immigrants, the NY store offers unique imports from pasta to olive oil.

teitel brothers 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
teitel brothers 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Even before you arrive, the aroma of Teitel Brothers Imports greets you at the corner of Arthur Avenue and East 186th St. The confluence of Prosciutto, aging Provolone, and the sharp notes of Peccorino Romano wafts through the door, drifting past the pyramids of canned tomatoes and drums of olive oil on the sidewalk. Colorful bunkers of imported food are a common sight within the three-block triangle of The Bronx's Belmont section, known by many New Yorkers as the city's "real Little Italy." Not so standard is the emblem that welcomes customers to Teitel Brothers. Most are too distracted wedging themselves into the crowded store to notice that they just shuffled over a well-worn tile design of the Star of David. It was cemented into place in 1915 when Austrian immigrants Jacob and Morris Teitel opened the business after moving from the Lower East Side to a neighborhood that was, and still is, flush with Italian merchants. Today, Jacob's son Gilbert and his sons Jean, Michael, and Eddie stand shoulder-to-shoulder in white aprons behind the counter, slicing Cappicola and ringing sales under a crimson canopy of salami that hangs just above their heads. Around the corner from them are Casa Della Mozzarella, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, and Terranova Bakery. On either side of Teitel Brothers Imports are Biancardi Meats, Randazzo's Fish Market and Oyster Bar, and Gino's Pastry Shop. Despite being surrounded by Italian culture and Catholic iconography, Gilbert says he has never felt anything other than one of the family in the closely-knit constellation of Arthur Avenue merchants. "We're part of the neighborhood like everyone else," he says with a shrug, handing a slice of Soppressata across the counter for a customer to sample. "My family has always felt welcome here. My father spoke Yiddish. And before he spoke English, he spoke Italian." Three years ago, the city renamed a portion of 186th St. "Teitel Brothers Way." Purists from Manhattan, New Jersey, and Connecticut flock to the tiny store for 100 different shapes of pasta, aged Balsamic vinegars, slabs of drying Baccala (salt cod), Amaretti di Saronno Cookies, and Super-Fine Wheat Flour. When The New York Times gave a favorable review of their Don Luigi Sicilian Olive Oil, orders poured in through their Web site, some from as far away as Kuwait. "We have some guys in the military over there who like the oil," Gilbert says with a smile. Saturday foot traffic fills Teitel Brothers' interior to its gills. Crowds swell to such proportions that a guard is posted at the door to strong-arm the flow of customers when the store gets too packed for visitors to shop comfortably. Business booms year-round, except on Jewish holidays, which Gilbert has declared sacrosanct. While the rest of Arthur Avenue bustles along with business as usual on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Teitel Brothers is boarded up and dark. "It's a very special family tradition," he explains. "We celebrate Pessah and the High Holy Days together and that's the way it's been for 91 years." And in December, the Teitels decorate the exposed brick wall of their nearby warehouse with light displays of both a Christmas tree and a menorah. Customers, Gilbert says, barely seem to take notice. They're more enthralled with what's inside his family's store, whether it's Apple Balsamic Vinegar, wheels of sheep's milk cheese from Rome, or aromatic jars of Sicilian sea salt with blood oranges. Bronx resident Grace Botta steps to the counter for a pound of Prosciutto di Parma. "I'm Napolitana - I buy everything here!" she shouts as Eddie wraps her order in white paper. "They have things no one else has." At 37, Eddie is the youngest bearer of the family tradition. Like his grandfather, he answers questions in Italian from neighborhood residents while filling orders. "Solo due kilo," he says, reaching for a hammer and cinderblock-sized chunk of Torronne. "I feel like Michelangelo whenever I do this," he smiles, chipping away at the nougat, a spray of almonds showering the counter. Gilbert heads outside for a breather. The display window behind him glitters in the afternoon sun, a collage of red Tonno Trancio cans, jars of Lupini Beans and the silvery glint of olive oil drums. "I look forward to the holidays. Observing them sets tradition," he says, waving to the pizzeria owner across the street. "I'm not going to change it and I don't think my sons are. After that, I hope my grandchildren continue it." For more information on Teitel Brothers Imports, visit www.teitelbros.com For more information on Arthur Avenue and its merchants, visit www.arthuravenue.com . Stacey Morris is a food and travel writer. Her Web site is www.staceymorris.com .