Carrying on family traditions on one of New York's most iconic streets.
By Maria Di Rende as told to Juliet Izon
Maria Di Rende is the owner of Enzo’s of Arthur Avenue, the stretch of street known as “Little Italy in the Bronx.” A lifetime resident of the neighborhood, Di Rende started the restaurant with her husband Enzo, who passed away two years ago at age 46 from prostate cancer. Di Rende runs the restaurant while also raising five daughters, aged 10 to 21.
My side and my husband’s side, both our parents had businesses in the neighborhood. My grandfather used to make mozzarella for a lot of the businesses in the area. My grandmother lived in the building where our restaurant is now, as well. We do go back a long way. My father had a food store, so I used to help him out there on weekends and in the summertime. And my brother owns the Calabria Pork Store. I’m a little biased here, but it’s the best sopressata you can ever get.
Food was always around us, but I think that’s in every Italian family. Everything’s based around food.
My husband and I didn’t grow up knowing each other, but we got married young. I was 18. So we knew each other for a long time. The restaurant originally was a cafe that my husband had, and we switched that over into the restaurant back in 2005. We had a different restaurant in a different area, but we figured we were born and raised on Arthur Avenue, why not put the restaurant here? So, that was basically the reason why we ended up converting the cafe into Enzo’s. It started out as 40 seats, and then we decided to expand.
At first, a lot of people were like, “Are you crazy?” But when we started the work, we felt the excitement of actually expanding the restaurant. It definitely went from a, “Oh, are you crazy?” to very positive feedback. They started saying, “You know what? This is great! This is gonna be good for the neighborhood, because you’re bringing in more business.” We’ve hosted events like communions and weddings. It’s all fun.
The fried meatballs are our signature dish, of course. We serve that with cherry peppers and onions. And we have a fried calamari alla Enzo—it’s also with cherry peppers, but it’s tossed with honey so you have that hot and sweet combination. My husband came up with all of the recipes. He was the chef and vision behind all of it.
Before he passed, we didn’t get to have a conversation about the future of the restaurant. It happened so fast. We knew he was sick, but by the time he got into the hospital, he was pretty much on a ventilator for a good eight days. So we weren’t able to really talk about, “What am I going to do next?” Of course, we did talk about it in the past, but nothing was really put into detail. So, everything that I’ve been doing, I’ve been doing it with my heart.
I have five daughters—Isabella, Juliana, Victoria, Gabriella, and Francesca. The most important thing I can teach them about running a business is you have to have heart about what you do. And you have to stay strong, through the ups and downs. I want them to know that no matter how hard things are, if you stay focused on the reasons for doing what you’re doing, it is worth it.
It was hard at first because we didn’t know if it was gonna work, but I think we all, including my workers, had one core reason—my husband was a really good guy. He treated everyone like family. So, me and my daughters, we wanted to continue that. And we do treat everyone like family, whether you are working there or whether you’re a customer coming in. I think we all had that goal of, “Okay, we’re gonna do this because this is something that he really wanted.” It was more to honor him, and yes, it was difficult. But our main focus was, “We’re doing this for Enzo.”
Pretty much everything is the same. I was very adamant about keeping some of his dishes the same. But, I’m not opposed to changing. As a matter of fact, we’re doing fresh pastas, like spaghetti, rigatoni—all the pastas are now fresh. I plan on putting them out there, selling to other stores as well. I’m in the process of making labels and all the packaging. Once we get back, I can focus more on that part.
With COVID-19, first I started cutting down on shifts. That’s when it started hitting us—this is real, and it’s something to worry about. I am doing takeout, but most of my customer base is not really calling in to take out. It’s very, very few. We were kind of hoping with St. Barnabas Hospital being there, we’d get some takeout from there, but it’s not really happening. But I’m in the process of sending food to the ER to help them out.
I am staying open simply to give my workers a chance to make some money. It does cost me more to stay open, but it gives them a sense of stability. I want to help them out. They feel that if they come in, they’re doing something. And they also have been very, very supportive, even saying, “Don’t worry about paying us.” The neighborhood businesses that are staying open, we’re kind of supporting each other that way. Because if they’re all shut down, you just feel more depressed. We are all in it together.
I think restaurants are all in the same boat, and I hope that once this is over with, people will be a little bit more extra-supportive. I’ve had people that have come in to take out, and let’s just say their bill is $20, and they’ll leave a $20 tip for whoever was there taking care of putting in that order for them. Everyone is going to be in financial crisis, but I think if everyone could start supporting each other that way, that would be great. Because I know restaurants are taking a really, really big hit.
I’d love to have everything go back to normal after we reopen. We know that that’s going to take some time before that can happen. We’re just hoping for the best at this point.