Ferdinando’s Focacceria: old school before it was kool

lunch at Ferdinando's Foccaceria

When you think of old-style Italian-American restaurants does red sauce spring to mind? Red check wax table cloths, family-style servings, a free salad with your entree, rotund red-faced guys with their sleeves rolled-up, going “ey!” and slapping each other on the back? Sure, it’s a cliché, but it’s also close to the truth in a lot of places, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I, for one, love a classic east coast red sauce and meatballs joint, but it’s not the complete picture.

Ferdinando’s Focacceria on Union Street in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens neighborhood has been in business as long as any in New York City. In 1910, in the heart of what was then a burgeoning Italian community, it opened its doors principally to cater for expatriate paesani working at the nearby Brooklyn docks, and it’s been serving the neighborhood faithfully ever since. However, unlike many of the other Italian eateries in the area, Fernandino’s does not serve everything with lashings of tomato gravy (not that they don’t offer red sauce – try it with their tripe), instead, they serve their original regional Sicilian dishes as if they don’t care or aren’t aware that long-established Italian restaurants are supposed to top everything with a meatball. They are most famous for their panelle and vastedda (chick pea fritters and veal spleen sandwiches, respectively), which they didn’t just decide to start selling since David Chang and Michael Symon announced it was cool for Brooklyn hipsters to eat offal.

vastedda special

That Ferdinando’s and many other original Italian businesses are still in operation in Carroll Gardens speaks to the fact that descendants of the neighborhood’s original communities remain where their forefathers first landed, in sight of Ellis Island across New York harbor. Not that simply by merit they don’t deserve to be in business, but that health-ninnies and changing dietary proclivities have discouraged most people from looking kindly upon rolls filled with deep fried chickpea dough or boiled calf-innards.

broccoli di rape

Our recent visit was the culmination of several years of anticipation and a pleasant relief after a terrible, screamy morning with our 5-month old. It was planned as our first lunch out with the baby, and we arrived flustered and desperate that he would nap long enough to allow us to get through a meal in peace. Finding ourselves a table at the rear, as distant as possible from the other patrons, we settled ourselves in and admired the time-worn decor of sepia-tint photos of the old country, a thickly over-painted tin ceiling and some attractive stained glass. The baby sparked awake shortly after we’d ordered our wine, but to our amazement, he emerged from his car-seat cheerful, quiet and relaxed. Maybe he is as susceptible as we are to a relaxing restaurant atmosphere? Whatever the reason, cue a great lunch.

octopus salad

panelle sandwich

Owner Francesco Buffa’s food is unrepentantly rustic and from the mismatched plates to the friendly but slightly gruff service, it is a truly authentic experience of old Brooklyn that is increasingly hard to find. Starting with a cold octopus and celery salad and a plate of garlicky broccoli di rape with a basket of crisp Italian bread from Mazzola bakery two blocks up, before proceeding with a panelle and mozzarella sandwich and a vastedda special (with the most unctuous ricotta), our happiness reigned for nearly two hours. In fact, so becalmed were we and Paolo, that we had dessert and espresso as the wait staff cooed around the baby.

dessert at Ferdinando's

Buddhists say that expectations are the root of all suffering, but even if we’d had the greatest morning of our lives instead of one of the most grueling, Ferdinando’s would still have been special. We will be heading back again soon to try their famous pasta con le sarde (with sardines, raisins and pine nuts) and rice balls stuffed with house-made ragu and peas. Whether Paolo will cooperate remains to be seen, but the food is so good that it’s worth the risk.

Ferdinando’s Foccaceria
151 Union St., Brooklyn, NY 11231 at Hicks St.
T: 718-855-1545
Starters $3-$12
Mains $10-$20
Sandwiches $5-$8

18 thoughts on “Ferdinando’s Focacceria: old school before it was kool

  1. Octopus salad! love, love, love. Is their panelle topped with cheese? I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that before (I like mine with a squirt of lemon and some extra salt for my carb overload of the day).

    I’ll have to check this place out the next time I’m in Brooklyn. I’m completely intrigues.

  2. Thinking, I have to amend, I have seen them sprinkled with pecorino or the like, but not with anything resembling mozzarella or ricotta on it. Interesting (and I bet delicious!)

  3. WOw, haven’t been there in ages… love those red rimmed plates… they just scream old world food. I have never tried spleen sandwiches but the rabe and octopus look divine. Lovely reporting on a lost little pocket of Italy in NY… the one in Manhattan is long gone.

  4. First time I’ve seen the baby’s name in print…love it! (very Brazilian, no?)

    Don’t know how this restaurant got by from my Brooklyn days…will keep it in mind for my next visit.

  5. YO GUYS I am truly a lover of red sauce Italian delicacies– But I DEF wanna go to Fernandos and try their
    other Italian delicacies -LUV IT!!

  6. haven’t been in years but their rice balls and homemade wine are the best!!!!
    so happy they are still there and thriving!

  7. Oh, gosh. The drool. It’s unstoppable. If only I weren’t so far away, I’d rush right over to Fernandos right now. There’s definitely a place for red sauce places… but I’m thinking that deliciously green broccoli rabe and the the promise of vastedda are giving them all a pretty good run for the money.

  8. I see that tiny bebbeh hand in the background! I would kill for a place like this in my neighborhood. We get good Vietnamese, but I guess that’s an effect of being on the west coast – we’re closer to Asia than Europe.

  9. This place sounds awesome! I wonder how I’ve never been there…. I love how they think outside the stereotypical Italian food box. Everything sounds delicious.

  10. @Heather – that is indeed the mitt of nostro bambino!
    @Joanne – they have been thinking outside the stereotypical Italian food box for 100 years. Long may it continue!

  11. What a fun meal. I was drooling over your cheese descriptions (although not so much over – veal spleen? :-)) It’s amazing that a truly authentic and unusual Italian place would survive for so long. Brava to them! Even the places that try the hardest to be regional or more faithful to the old country tend to veer into the red sauce direction. (Yes, I agree red sauce Italian is a special cuisine unto itself and if well done, deserving of praise. SPP and I had our first date at such a restaurant almost 13 years ago and we are still regulars there)

  12. Taking the kid out for meals actually gets harder later on, but I’m glad this worked so well. There was a joint on Sullivan or Macdougal St. that we used to go to years ago for exactly this sort of vintage vibe. Carroll Gardens still has some serious authenticity left, no doubt. I’d be jealous that you live near so much good eating, but then I have half a lamb (including its organs) in my great big chest freezer that’s as big as your whole kitchen so we’ll call it a draw.

  13. Sounds like my kind of place. The octopus salad has started something that will not pass until I have a plate of my own (volpetti tomorrow). I will look forward to the pasta con le sarde update which I am sure will start something else. Everything is looking rather nice and green at the market here, fave and pecorino not far off. Paolo – che bel nome.
    great pictures as usual.

  14. This looks SO good. I love when restaurants resolutely refuse to homogenize to meet mainstream expectations. If you’re interested in a foray to a similar neighborhood, head out to the Bronx, not to Arthur Avenue as everyone does, but to Pelham Bay, way out at the end of the 6. Between Middletown Road and the last stop, you’ll find salumeria, fruit stands, fabulous old world butchers, fish mongers, and just serious Italian food. (I lived right there before heading West.)

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