Early in September I made a pilgrimage back to my old neighborhood in Brooklyn to see if it was still such a delicious place to live. I grew up on 10th Avenue in what we called the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn. But we were actually nestled in the center of several neighborhoods including Bensonhurst and Dyker Heights. One block away on 11th Avenue was our local Italian shopping area with individual stores for fruits and vegetables, fish, cheese, pasta, pork and bread. The only things we purchased at the “supermarket” were cleaning supplies, cereal and ice cream. Well, things have changed – but not that much. One of the most amazing specialty stores, Faicco’s, is still there with the most amazing assortment of pork products I have ever seen.
All the chops, cutlets, sausages and roasts are laid out in perfect rows in the brightly lit cases. The small army of butchers in their immaculate white lab coats dodge each other with grace and dexterity as they maneuver behind the counter to fill and wrap every purchase. They sort of anticipate your pickiness and are more than up to the challenge. Do you want paper slices between each cutlet? Do you want it double wrapped for the freezer. Do you want each item individually wrapped? No problem. Take a number and wait patiently as each person gathers the basic ingredients for their Sunday Sauce (or gravy).
In a surgically clean room next door, they are at work trimming the pork for sausages, stuffing casings, making fresh mozzarella in huge vats, cutting roasts and making up display trays. On the counter above the cases are several pre-cooked specialties like arancini (rice balls) pizza rustica, prosciutto bread and sausage rolls. Next to that are vats of cured olives, mushrooms and vegetables. And finally, the deli selection with several varieties of prosciutto to be carefully shaved and a wide array of other deli meats. It really brought me back to my childhood to be in this store once again and I am ever so grateful that very little has changed since those days. These people are dedicated to a culinary tradition and to a level of quality and service that we have all but lost in the move to mass market merchandising.
It is a pleasure and a relief to witness its survival into the 21st century.
Across the street, on the site of the old Marchese Bakery is an amazing establishment called Sorrentino’s. they still have the 100 year old wood fired oven in the back where they turn out crusty artisan breads and pizzas.
But in the front they have a kind of cafeteria display of a dozen Italian specialties from roasted chicken flavored with lemon and oregano to eggplant parmigiano, stuffed artichokes, stuffed mushrooms, veal cutlet romano, and on and on. I went on Saturday and just had a double espresso and a couple of Biscotti di Regina, the little cookies covered with toasted sesame seeds. Then I went back on Sunday for a few loaves of semolina bread, still warm from the oven (at $1 per loaf!) Next time I’m going to make sure I am there for lunch or dinner. this is a family owned and operated business and you are just as likely to be served by the owner as one of the other workers. They’ve created a small empire right there on 11th Ave. which includes this eatery, and adjacent catering hall and a fish store across the street. My sister Patty from Maryland was with me and we made impromptu plans to meet up with our younger brother, Joseph who was
on his way from his home in highland, NY, to Long Island with his wife Laura to visit her mother. By the time we got to the Spumoni Gardens they were already there and waiting for us.
And this place really hasn’t changed in more than 50 years. We would come up here after a visit to my aunt Mamie who lived just around the corner. The spumoni is served in the same accordion paper cup that you squeeze and suck on to extract the last bits of flavor. The kid behind the counter has the same Brooklyn attitude that I remember from childhood. If you just order a large or small, what you get is a combination of vanilla, chocolate and rainbow. If you want a cup of just one of those flavors you have to ask for it. Everything is painted red, white and green and there are picnic tables
where you can sit out and enjoy your spumoni or a slice of their pizza (thick square cut or thin pie cut). they also have a sit down restaurant where you can get all kinds of pasta, calamari, mussels, eggplant and so on. But the spumoni, a kind of intensely flavored cross between Italian ice and gelato, is the real reason to come here. this business started out many years ago as a single push cart that grew into the American dream. It’s a good story and it’s great spumoni. To my delight and relief, the product is exactly as it was when I was a child. And I would remember. There are times when memories exceed reality but not here. Thank you Spumoni Gardens!
Ok, one more stop. This time we went into a store on New Utrecht Avenue called Pastosa. This was the only store bought fresh pasta that was ever allowed in my Grandmother’s kitchen. It was so delicious that she proclaimed it “home made” even though we bought it at a store. The store is still the same cramped little corner but they seem to have expanded the range of things you can get there. Here are some pictures to give you an idea of the variety.
All I can say is that it really took me back to my youth to be in these old stores and to see and taste that everything is still as good as I remember them. I only wish I had been able to stay longer and sample more. I’ve been thinking about organizing a bus trip back to the old neighborhood. If you think you’d be interested, just add a comment to this post. As plans come together I’ll let you know what we’re thinking of.