By Robb Mandelbaum
Teitel Brothers, a corner grocery in the Bronx, is the sort of specialty store that retains the loyalty of its customers years, even decades, after they’ve left the neighborhood. On a Friday morning in January, both the weather and business are brisk, and Gilbert Teitel wants to prove the devotion of his customers. He has already introduced a middle-aged man from Yorktown, a town in Westchester County, New York; a younger woman from Yonkers, New York; and a mother who has driven down from Connecticut with her daughter. Now Teitel, who is 78 and the son of one of the two brothers who opened the store, looks across the store. “Do you want the lady with the mink coat?” he asks. Then he turns her way. “Lady with the mink coat!”
The coat is floor-length, and the lady is named Patricia. She lives across the Hudson River in Bergen County, New Jersey. Patricia moved out of the Bronx in 1969, but she still makes the 40-minute drive from Waldwick, New Jersey every couple months. I ask how long she’s been coming here. “My mother came here,” she tells me. “Eighty years.” That’s about where the nostalgia ends. “I get a better product here for a lower price than I can get anywhere,” says Patricia, who will not offer her last name. “You can’t beat the quality of the things that are sold here. That you can print.”
She turns back toward the counter. “I want a pound and a half of Romano, grated,” she tells him. Her shopping list today includes another pound and a half of Asiago cheese, as well as a pound of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The Connecticut mother, too, is sharing little pieces of Parmigiano with her daughter as the grater whines; a moment later she accepts an enormous bag — three and a half pounds — of grated cheese. “That’ll last a month,” the mother says. “A year!” her daughter exclaims gleefully. “No, it’ll last Daddy a month.”
Teitel Brothers, to be sure, is an anomaly wrapped around an oddity. Neighborhoods change, stores come and go, but on the eve of its centenary in April, Teitel’s is thriving. But though the owners are Jewish, the store is not a deli or an appetizing shop selling whitefish and cream cheese but one of the most beloved and enduring provisioners of Italian staples — what in the patria might be called a salumeria — not just in the Bronx, but also across the city. Two years ago, the Daily News judged Teitel Brothers’ Italian sausage to be the best in New York.
Manhattan’s Little Italy is long gone, subsumed decades ago by Big China, and more recently overrun by Nolita, a branded neighborhood of youthful wealth and notions of stylish and knowing, if not exactly subversive, consumption. Eleven miles north, however, in the Belmont section of the Bronx, Arthur Avenue still coheres as an old-fashioned neighborhood shopping street. One can still buy fish across the street from Teitel’s at Cosenza’s (established 1918), fresh-baked bread next door at G. Addeo & Sons (1933), and meat next door to that at Biancardi’s (circa 1920s), and dessert next door to that at Madonia Brothers (1918). Practically everywhere else in America, the staples of Italian cooking have graduated to epicurean luxuries. But at Teitel Brothers, parmigiano and prosciutto remain everyday foods for everyday people.
Teitel Brothers declares its intention to overwhelm even before one enters. Stacked on the sidewalk are the essentials of an Italian kitchen, in oversize quantities: 22-pound bags of flour, 25-pound bags of cornmeal, gallon jugs of olive oil, commissary-sized cans of tomatoes. These are not wholly for show; more than half of Teitel’s business is wholesale to restaurants here and in the suburbs. The “sale” tags that festoon each and every item may be another matter — they look like permanent fixtures. In fact, everything in the store is nominally “on sale.”
The store itself is tiny — 900 square feet — and the Teitels make the most of it. There is little room to move between the counter and the boxes piled high with baccalà (two kinds), garlic, dried fruit, and olive oil. Above the racks of pasta and Slavic cookies, the Teitels have stacked boxes of panettone, the Christmas fruit cake, now deeply discounted for real.
Gil Teitel’s father Jacob Teitel and his uncle Morris Teitel worked as tailors on New York City’s Lower East Side for at least a decade after they immigrated from the shtetl in Tarnobrzeg, in what’s now southeastern Poland. Jacob Teitel was perhaps 18 or 19 when he came over. But, says Gil Teitel, they wanted to work for themselves, and when the opportunity arose to move uptown — to a neighborhood already dominated by Italians — it didn’t seem so farfetched. Another brother owned a grocery store in Brooklyn. And “there were a lot of Jewish merchants in this area,” says Gil Teitel. “Some were in the haberdashery business and sold jeans, and shirts. They owned grocery stores — not many, but a few.”
The shops — Jewish and otherwise — competed fiercely. “All the stores around here, they were bread stores, or macaroni stores, or vegetable stores — they all sold groceries,” Gil Teitel says. “The fish store, right up the block, sold everything that we sold.” The Teitel brothers “learned from the people they hired. And they got hurt and they got up, and they went back into action.” Among the first challenges: mastering the local language: Italian. “He spoke broken English, but he spoke Italian fluently,” Gil Teitel says of his father. “I get by, but I’m not as fluent as my father was, or his brother, or my brothers. It’s just not necessary today.” Even so, many Teitel Brothers customers today conduct their business entirely in Italian.
Typical of an immigrant business, everybody pitched in. “We lived upstairs in the first apartment,” Gil Teitel tells me. “There’s a steam pipe by the door. Now, when my father got busy, he used to knock on the steam pipe, and my mother used to come down and give change. Or wait on customers.”
Of course, some in the neighborhood were hostile to the observant Jews among them. Gil Teitel is reluctant to discuss it. “Everybody was in the same boat,” he explains. “They were grinding out a living, and everybody wanted to survive.” But in the 1930s, Jacob Teitel laid a Star of David into the tiles at the store’s threshold as a rebuke to his landlord. “The landlord,” Gil Teitel begins, and then pauses. “The landlord told my father that if people knew you were Jewish, they wouldn’t shop here.” With the star, Jacob Teitel aimed to prove him wrong (and did). It was also a personal protest against the coming disaster in Europe.
By day, the Teitels cut prosciutto by hand; by night upstairs, Jacob Teitel’s wife kept kosher — she kept two sets of dishes and changed them again for Passover. “Did we eat treyf? Yeah, on the outside we ate treyf.” Gil Teitel says. But, he adds, “We closed the store on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, no matter what day they came out on. In fact, we just closed this past holiday, and it came out on a Saturday. And Saturday is the biggest day here, on this avenue. But we closed — I’m not changing anything because of losing business.” (Needless to say, the store is usually open on Saturdays, and closed on Sundays.)
The family didn’t try to reconcile the contradiction. (By rabbinic tradition, Jews may not traffic in pork any more than they may eat it.) “It was six and a half days a week,” Gil Teitel says. “It used to be 8 o’clock in the morning til 8 o’clock at night during the week. On a Friday evening, they would be open til like 12, 1 o’clock in the morning. Then Saturday night, it was 1 o’clock in the morning. And half a day Sunday.
“That was the way of life. When you’re talking about people having time to concentrate on other things, other than making a living, there wasn’t any time.”
Gil Teitel made sure to pass his Jewish heritage on to his three sons. “We lit the candles every Friday night for Saturday, we’d go to synagogue,” recalls Eddie Teitel, who at 43 is the youngest brother. They attended an Orthodox shul in the Bronx, and a Conservative one when they moved to Rockland County. All of them were bar-mitvahed. If the sons ever got questioned about selling ham, Gil Teitel says, they never took it to their father. Eddie Teitel tells me that nobody has ever raised the issue with him. “You know, everybody loves it — who doesn’t like Italian cooking?”
Gil Teitel himself, however, still fields the question occasionally. “People ask me, what is a Jew doing in an Italian store? And my answer is, my father made a wrong turn. If he had made the right turn, he would’ve been in the oil fields.”
When Jacob Teitel died in 1946, Gil Teitel’s older brother Ben Teitel set aside a dream of becoming a doctor to help his uncle Morris Teitel run the store. Gil Teitel says he didn’t want his sons to share that fate — he’d hoped they would become professionals — though Eddie Teitel, in particular, remembers it differently. “After I graduated college, he would ask me to come in on the weekends and help out,” Eddie says. “And then, slowly but surely, Saturdays turned into Mondays, and then turned into Tuesdays, and before you knew it, I was here full-time.” The other sons migrated back to Arthur Avenue after pursuing other careers. The eldest, Jean Teitel, who works in the warehouse across the street, started at the store after retiring from the harbor police about a decade ago. The middle son, Michael Teitel, ran a restaurant in Rockland County before selling it to come work with his family.
The Teitels still put in long hours. “If you come here any given day, whether it’d be Monday at 6 in the morning or Saturday at 6 at night, there’s always one of us here,” he says. “People want to see that. They want to identify with somebody there that they know.”
He pulls me to the center of the store, and points to the boxes of dried fruit. “You see the dates? You like dates?” he asks. “The dates are the best. Look at these dates. Try a date. You see these dates? They’re delicious!”
And so they are. Eddie’s enthusiasm builds. “You see the size of the dates? These are dates from Israel. They’re the best dates that you can get.”
Though Eddie Teitel travels to Italy every year, and Michael Teitel has gone, too, Gil Teitel has never visited the country in his 55 years selling its exports. (“I can go to any Italy any time I want and not pay a dime out of my own pocket,” Gil Teitel tells me. “Why wouldn’t I go to Italy? Why do I have no desire to go to Italy? I don’t know. I’m not a plane person.”) Then there’s that detached vocabulary: “product,” “quality.” You hear it a lot over a day at Teitel Brothers, and not just from the proprietors, but also, strikingly, from their customers. It reveals a lot about the Teitels’ relationship to what they sell. Such words do not suggest passion.
It’s a sharp contrast to Grand Street in Manhattan, where Di Palo’s Fine Foods stands as one of two remaining Italian groceries in that borough’s Little Italy, and is renowned as much for the proprietors’ missionary zeal as for the selection of imported meats and cheeses. The Teitel Brothers and the Di Palo family share much in common, from the breadth of their merchandise, to the longevity of their enterprise (Di Palo’s opened in 1925), to the devotion of their customers, even to the music of their speech. But I don’t think I’ve heard anyone at Di Palo’s refer to anything they sell as “product.” They treat it more like a birthright.
Di Palo’s became something of an ambassador for Italy’s artisanal traditions, a shrewd strategy to transcend its ever-shrinking neighborhood. When he’s not cutting cheese at his family’s store, Lou Di Palo appears on cooking and travel shows. He recently wrote a book.
That is not a mantle Teitel Brothers, or the Teitel brothers, could easily wear. “I wouldn’t want to be considered an expert on Italian food, because I’m not Italian,” says Gil Teitel. “Do I know good Italian food? Yes. Do I know a good brand of olive oil, or tomatoes, or how to run a business? Yes. Do my sons? Yes. I don’t have to put my name out there.”
In fact, having some distance from the product has served as an advantage for Teitel Brothers. Consider the sausage. Gil Teitel makes it clear that it is an almost perfect reflection of his customers’ collective taste. “We went across the street, we took the sausage, and we let the pizza shop cook it, and we let the people taste it. That was our input. You get enough people walking in and tasting it, and you go by what they say.
“I’m not going to turn around and be the maven for what sausage is to my taste. It has to be to their taste.”
These days, Teitel Brothers fans are more likely vote with their cars than with their feet. Italians began moving out of Belmont in the 1970s, just as Albanians, traveling through Italy, began arriving. Many of the Albanians have moved on, too. Jerome Krase, a sociologist at Brooklyn College, once noted that as Italians migrate away from Arthur Avenue, its keepers work even harder to maintain an outsized character — an “ethnic theme park,” he calls it. The veneer is peeling a little: a sushi place and a Mexican restaurant have opened up down the block from Teitel Brothers. Around the corner, on 187th, the awning for the vacant Roma Luncheonette has been painted over; a banner proclaims, “Jamaican Restaurant Coming Soon.”
Teitel Brothers has adjusted to some of these new arrivals. After they hired an Albanian translator, they began stocking products from that part of the world. But overall, the Italian-themed shopping district has thrived, and it’s not clear that the changes on the surrounding streets will affect Teitel Brothers much. Arthur Avenue “can go on forever,” says Krase. “As long as they’re doing a good job with maintaining the theme park.” Gentrification, should it come, seems far on the horizon.
“The neighborhood is changing for the better,” Eddie says. “This year, I’ve seen more new faces than I’ve ever seen before. A lot of people are coming from the suburbs. There are a lot of young people from Manhattan, and they’re coming up to see the whole experience.” And Teitel’s wholesale business doesn’t really depend on a vibrant Arthur Avenue at all.
The future of Teitel Brothers really depends on whether the Teitel family wants to pursue it. For his part, the patriarch would rather his grandchildren not embrace this livelihood. So far they have obliged him, though five of the six have yet to graduate — or enter — college. There’s still time.
“We’ve never discussed that,” says Eddie. “My kids are small yet. The oldest is 12.” I ask him what he hopes his children will do. He hesitates, then measures his response carefully, like he knows it will not serve the story. “Of course, I would like my kids to go to school, go to college, and pursue a career in what they choose to be,” he says. “If they choose this, it’ll be here for them.”
Or maybe he really is ambivalent about it. So a few minutes later I ask him again. There follows a very long pause — seven uncomfortable seconds on my recorder. Then he says what he has to say. “I’d love to see one of my kids follow the family tradition. Of course. I think everybody wants to see that happen.”
Robb Mandelbaum has written about small business for The New York Times and Inc. Magazine and about Italian cheese for Gourmet.