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Finding the Ghost of Red Hook Past at 90-Year-Old DeFonte's

This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.

[Krieger, 04/14/11]

Seen from the corner of Commerce and Van Brunt Streets, DeFonte's looks like an apparition; an isolated four-story, hospital-green mirage at the center of a crumbling, five-way intersection, roped in by telephone lines. The Ghost of Red Hook Past. And it is. The sandwich place is the oldest surviving eatery in the neighborhood by a very long shot. It was founded in 1922 by the DeFonte family, who still run it, and own the building it's in, and it is one of the few links to the area's industrial, longshoremen, shipping past.

The family recently opened a Manhattan location, on Third Avenue and 21st Street. But don't expect a newly corporate vibe at the Columbia Street branch. This is still very much a neighborhood place, where locals and various assorted DeFontes, thick as thieves, gather at the back, page through the Post and shoot the bull. There's a small army behind the long counter, so you never have to wait long to order your sandwich. And sandwiches are what this place is about. Signs over the counter offer suggestions. Roast beef, mozzarella and eggplant is a talked-about masterpiece. But regulars know what they like, and order off the menu. The fare can vary from day to day, but when the sandwiches are good, they're very good.

Those regulars come from all over—other neighborhoods, boroughs, Jersey. Ninety years in business, you build up a following. Most arrive by car, pick up their sandwich and go. This goes for the many police officers, taxi drivers and truck drivers for whom DeFonte's is a magnet. Though there's a counter you can stand at, most people don't eat here. It's take out. (No delivery.) And forget about dinner. The shop closes at 4 PM. Do local Red Hookers patronize? Not so much. "They've gotten cheap," said one counter man. "They want a side salad and a soda with their sandwich. As opposed to the workers who used to come, who would live for a day on one sandwich."

Two ladies told me they used to eat there 50 years ago, when they were kids. "It hasn't changed," one said. "The sandwiches are the same." She offered a flavor tip. "Ask them to dip the edges of the bread in the pepper juice." They were surprised to find out that DeFonte's now had a Manhattan branch, but didn't think they'd visit. "The sandwiches wouldn't taste the same," said on, looking out to the street, "without the exhaust fumes."
—Brooks of Sheffield

· All Coverage of Defonte's [~ENY~]