One of my favorite restaurants in all the world is Mario’s on Arthur Avenue in the Little Italy section of the Bronx. The Bronx has the real Little Italy in New York — the one in lower Manhattan has a longer history, but these days is a tiny tourist trap. The area around Arthur Avenue and E. 187th Street is still an Italian enclave full of shops run by Italian immigrants.
A hundred years ago, Mario’s opened as a pizza place, and later became one of the finest restaurants in the area. My mother first started going there when she was a teenager (she’s in her seventies now), and for as long as I’ve been going there regularly (since my early twenties), Joe Migliucci has been in charge. Mario’s was founded by his grandfather in 1919, and Joe has kept the family business going, as have his own children and grandchildren.
My parents and I used to go to Mario’s every Friday night for dinner, a tradition that fell by the wayside for various and sundry reasons, but we still are regulars there, and are considered famiglia by the staff. I remember one time taking two friends of ours there after a trip to the nearby Bronx Zoo, forgetting that the also nearby Fordham University was having Homecoming that weekend. (As an alumnus I should’ve remembered that, but I’m dumb.) However, as soon as we got there, we were still treated well, and we got served quickly and efficiently and happily despite the huge crowds.
When Wrenn and I decided to get married, Mario’s was where we had the wedding — initially scheduled for October 2016, hastily moved to April 2017 when we were forced to move in the late summer of ’16. Regina — who now manages the place — was very good to us, and they treated us phenomenally well. We got amazing food, amazing service, and a glorious time was had by all.
Over the last few years, as Joe has approached 80 (a milestone he reached in November of 2018), he has cut back on his time in the kitchen, leaving it to his successors, among them his son. But he still had his hand in periodically. For a long time, he would make pasta fromaggio, pre-cooked pasta heated up by using a big chunk of parmesan as the pan, along with herbs, alcohol, and olive oil, and it was glorious. He’d make it right there in front of you, too, and it was always fun to see the looks on the faces of the other customers who’d never had it before and watching them change their order so they could get that, too.
When we had our wedding in the upstairs function room, we were heartened and honored to see that Joe did the cooking himself for us and our guests.
Over the last few years, he’s mostly been an eminence grise at the restaurant, leaving the cooking and the managing to his younger family members. He would sit at the front and greet people as they came in. Every time Wrenn and I were there, he’d have a hearty handshake for me, a very European kiss on the cheek for Wrenn, and a bright smile for both of us.
Mario’s has been closed since the pandemic started, and it was announced yesterday that Joe had died. I have no idea if it was coronavirus-related or not — he’d been in mediocre health for years, and he was 81, so the possibilities are legion — but regardless of how he died, he will be sorely missed. The restaurant should carry on without him — as it did without his forebears who founded and continued the place over the past century — but his beautiful presence will be missed.
EDITED TO ADD: It’s confirmed that Joe did indeed die due to complications from COVID-19. Sigh.
Rest in peace, good sir. I raise a glass of Montelpulciano to you.