Mar 18th, 2011 by Jonathan Sills
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
151 Union St., Brooklyn, NY 11231 at Hicks St.