May 17 - 24, 2006
By ANDY HART, The Hartford News Staff Writer
Franklin Ave. has changed – but don’t worry. The Italian restaurants, markets and bakeries which made the Avenue famous as Hartford’s “Little Italy” are still turning out the best pizza, Italian cookies and veal scallopini in the region.
But in recent years, the Avenue has taken on an increasingly diverse look, based in part on the many Hispanic and Eastern European people who have moved into Hartford’s South End.
About half of Franklin Avenue’s 20 restaurants still specialize in Italian cuisine, but other eateries along the Avenue now offer up fare from Peru, Mexico, Cuba, China, Afghanistan, Colombia, Brazil and Bosnia. Just a block away, on Wethersfield Avenue, other restaurants offer Indian, Spanish and Polish dishes.
“We’re promoting the ‘International Taste of Hartford’s South End’now,” said Al Marotta, President of the Franklin Avenue Merchants Association (FAMA). Although the organization started on Franklin Avenue, it now serves businesses throughout the South End. Marotta said flags from different nations were recently added to the FAMA logo to better symbolize the area’s international character.
To better spotlight the South End’s culinary treasures, FAMA has been able to secure a shuttle bus which will operate when large conventions are in town. Marotta said the shuttle will pick up people from Downtown Hartford’s five major hotels and then drop off at selected spots on Franklin, Maple and Wethersfield Avenues.
Marotta also said that next week a special van will begin cruising through the neighborhood between 5 pm and 12 midnight, Tuesday through Saturday. The van will be staffed by a South Hartford Guide who will be available to provide visitors and residents with directions, information and other assistance.
FAMA is also trying to promote outdoor dining, which is now offered by several South End restaurants, including Francesco's, Azucar, Aye Chihuahua, First & Last Cafe and Costa Del Sol.
Old Bridge Restaurant, which is scheduled to open in a few weeks, will offer outside dining on a large porch looking out over “the heart” of the South End, the intersection of Franklin Avenue and Brown Street.
Old Bridge owner Sudo Custovic came to the U.S. from Bosnia in 1994. The restaurant is named after the famous bridge over the Neretva River in his hometown of Mostar. The 29-meter, singe-arch bridge was built in the 16th century and was considered one of the technological wonders of the region. The bridge was destroyed in November, 1993 during the Civil War in Bosnia. It is now being restored to its former glory.
Although the restaurant will feature cuisine from Bosnia and other East European countries, Custovic is hoping to attract people of all backgrounds to the Old Bridge.
“Italian restaurants don’t just attract Italians, Chinese restaurants don’t just attract Chinese...I’m hoping everyone will come by to taste and enjoy our food and culture,” he said. Half of the restaurant will be devoted to sit-down dining, the other half will be more like a European-style coffee-house. “It’ll be a place where people can sit down, relax, sip their coffee, talk and not worry about the time,” said Custovic.
He also said he views the many other restaurants along the avenue not as competition but as adding to the area’s overall appeal.
“You should be able to drive here, park, and walk to this place and that place. When other people driving by see that type of activity, they’ll get interested in the area too and hopefully come by later to see what it has to offer,” said Custovic.
While Custovic want to appeal to a broad range of customers, his brother, Fara, recently opened a store, Euro Ducan, which caters more specifically to the South End’s many Bosnians. The store stocks a wide variety of candies, teas, coffees, meats and other items. All come directly from Bosnia, except the meat products, which are made in America according to traditional Bosnian recipes.
Fara said approximately 7,000 Bosnians are now living in Connecticut, mostly in the Greater Hartford area. Many have moved out of Hartford since they arrived in the 1990’s, but the Franklin Avenue area remains the “heart” of their community.