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Weekend Planner

The unsung Bronx

Food and festivals are just some of the borough's many surprises

Email|Print| Text size + By Marie C. Franklin
Globe Staff / October 12, 2005

NEW YORK -- Oh, so you'll take Manhattan, but what about the Bronx?

There's no better way to embrace the ''I Love New York" motto than to get to know its boroughs. When our daughter started at Fordham University in the Bronx, we moved her into her dormitory and celebrated with dinner on Arthur Avenue, the Big Apple's lesser-known Little Italy. Four years later, we're still finding gems in the area and still eating at Emilia's, a homey Italian restaurant where the owner-chef will gladly engage in a discussion about the Yankees and Red Sox.

Whether you dine at this cafe or another on Arthur Avenue, you'll eat well. Restaurants, bakeries, and specialty food shops line the thoroughfare, the heart of the Belmont neighborhood.

''People come to Arthur Avenue to have fun," said Nunzio Sapienza, owner of Emilia's. ''But don't come here if you're on a diet."

Bronx trivia: What celebrity boasts, ''No matter where I go, I know where I came from"? Jennifer Lopez, of course, and there are plenty of memorable things surrounding her roots, including some of New York's star attractions: the Bronx Zoo, the New York Botanical Garden, and Yankee Stadium.

Less known, and another reason to visit the Bronx, is City Island, a mile-long community in Long Island Sound that will remind you of a coastal New England town. On a recent day, the annual fall arts festival was underway, and under tents that swayed in the salty breeze, artists stood ready to sell folk art, jewelry, and fine arts and crafts.

Unfortunately, the only part of the Bronx many travelers see is Co-op City, an apartment complex of more than 15,000 units in 35 buildings visible to drivers heading for Manhattan on Interstate 95. But if you leave the highway at exit 8 and take 8-B to City Island or 8-C onto Pelham Parkway, a different Bronx appears: leafy streets, three-family houses, and thriving commercial fare.

The Bronx, which gets its name from Jonas Bronck, a Swedish sea captain who settled here in 1639, is bounded by the sound, the East and Harlem rivers, and Westchester County, and is the only one of the five New York City boroughs that is part of the mainland. More than 1.3 million people live in the Bronx, a bustling urban area that suffers from an outdated image of 1960s urban decay.

Yet the Bronx is on the rise as a borough and a tourist destination. Under the leadership of Borough President Adolfo Carrion Jr., an annual celebration of Bronx pride is held every June. On Oct. 23, the Bronx will host the annual Tour de Bronx Festival and Jazz Concert. Cyclists of all ages and abilities may choose from three no-entry-fee routes along the borough's greenways and bike paths.

On this trip we made our first visit to the zoo. Even if you don't think of yourself as a zoo person, after hanging out in the Congo Gorilla Forest, or coming face to face (OK, there was a glass partition) with tigers and monkeys, or observing buffalo in a natural setting, you will understand all the fuss about the Bronx Zoo, the second largest in the country, next to San Diego's. More than 4,500 creatures roam the 265-acre park, where you can walk around (or take a monorail or tram). There's also a child-scale mini-zoo.

''You could go to this zoo for an entire weekend and not see the same thing twice," said Christopher Dawson, 19, of Topsfield, Mass., a Fordham student.

Earlier in the day, we had driven to City Island, which felt as un-Bronx as I imagine you can feel in this borough. Gone were the traffic, urban sounds, and pavement. The scene was all runners and bikers, and lovers embracing as we drove over the causeway. A turn onto City Island Avenue revealed a quaint downtown that reminded me of Vineyard Haven with its 18th-century buildings and storefronts with awnings.

''City Island is truly a small town in atmosphere," said Ron Terner, 56, a resident and owner of Focal Point Gallery. ''Everyone is friendly, and it's safe."

Back on Arthur Avenue, it was time for a pre-dinner stroll. The street is anchored by the large Arthur Avenue Retail Market, conveniently located across the street from a municipal parking lot. Shoppers can indulge in a spree at Briska Groceries, where imported Italian oils, olives, pastas, cheeses, and meats abound. Open-stall markets offer fresh fruits and vegetables, prepared lunches and other take-out items, Italian ceramics, and specialty kitchen products.

More Bronx trivia: What other famous people have lived in the borough? Regis Philbin, Al Pacino, Billy Joel, and Edgar Allan Poe, to name a few.

Marie C. Franklin can be reached at M_Franklin@globe.com.

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