With all due respect to the charms of Little Italy, Morris Park, a neighborhood in the East Bronx, outshines it as a capital of Italian-American culture. Family-owned cafés — where white-haired men sip espresso, nibble Italian pastries, smoke cigars and comment on the passersby — line Morris Park’s avenues. Mom-and-pop shops sell delicious imported cheeses, homemade pastas and sauces, pizzas and some of the best cannoli in the world. Bronx-bred Regis Philbin, for one, still pays regular visits to Conti’s Pastry Shoppe (established in 1921), on Morris Park Avenue.
In recent years, Albanian and Hispanic families have moved to Morris Park, drawn by the quality public schools, relatively affordable cost of living and easy access to Manhattan on the 5 subway line. But the vast majority of residents trace their ancestry back to Italy. Many lampposts along the two main thoroughfares — Morris Park Avenue and Williamsbridge Road — are festooned with Italian flags, and even the parking meters run red, white and green. The biggest block party of the year is a celebration of Italian-American heritage, too: The annual Bronx Columbus Day Parade draws thousands of spectators, marching bands and food vendors to Morris Park.
Morris Park wasn’t always such a family-friendly place. At the turn of the 20th century, the neighborhood was home to a raucous racecourse, built by a New Jersey businessman in 1889. Gambling, horse-racing and auto-racing were the diversions of the day. When a fire destroyed the course in 1910, the city designed a grid of streets and the residential vibe of present-day Morris Park was born.
These days, the neighborhood is quiet and family-oriented, filled with the kind of relatively spacious homes and lawns one might expect to find in the suburbs. In place of the high-rises of Midtown Manhattan or even the brownstones of Brooklyn, two-story redbrick or vinyl-sided homes, many with enclosed porches and fenced-off yards, line Morris Park’s leafy streets. The houses are often home to several generations of the same family, and you’ll often see statues of the Virgin Mary in the front lawns. Numerous churches occupy street corners. Neighborhood pride runs deep. The East Bronx History Forum, for example, meets every month in Morris Park to discuss and debate local legends and lore.
Morris Park is located east of the Bronx River Parkway and south of Pelham Parkway; the Amtrak Northeast Corridor train tracks form its eastern and southern boundaries. Morris Park is surrounded on all sides by other residential neighborhoods (it can be tough to find a cab in these parts). To the south, you’ll find Van Nest, Parkchester and Westchester Village; to the east, Middletown-Pelham Bay; to the north, Bronxdale and Pelham Gardens.