Near the end of the 19th century, Italian-America cuisine was invented by housewives from regions like Campania, Apulia, and Sicily who arrived in America to find many of the ingredients they were accustomed to cooking with simply not available. Cured pig products, fresh herbs like rosemary and sage, capers, foraged mushrooms, canned Italian tomatoes, familiar cheeses, vegetables like broccoli rabe and escarole, and myriad fresh and dried pastas were missing in New York City markets of the time. The deficiency would gradually be remedied with imported products and ones newly manufactured here. (The first American dried spaghetti was made in a Staten Island factory in the late 1890s.)
In the meantime, American markets provided an abundance of cheap ground beef — and the meatball was born. Cow's milk was substituted for the more expensive water buffalo milk used back home, and soon mozzarella and ricotta became central to Italian-American cooking. With a judicious mixture of native and imported products and revised and invented recipes, Italian-Americans developed their own distinctive style of cooking, one still with us today, but often passed over in favor of the supposedly more authentic regional cuisines of Italy. Once reviled as "red and dead" (in Seymour Britchky's words), now Italian-American is undergoing a revival. But it never left Brooklyn, in particular, where many of the original Italian-American recipes were created.
Here are ten ancient and venerable Italian-American restaurants that still persist in Kings County, with recommendations for ordering. If you go, stick with the standards — raw and stuffed clams, rollatinis, baked pastas, baked artichokes, veal and chicken cutlets, hero sandwiches, anything with eggplant, and, of course, spaghetti with meatballs. Buon Appetito!
The Five Best
Founded 1964 in Marine Park, Michael's is a youngster in Italian-American restaurant years. The exterior is faced in rusticated stone, looking like some hilltop fortress, while the interior is more like a Frank Sinatra movie; in fact, the evening a friend and I visited a special event featuring Sinatra's music was ongoing in a remote banquet room, and women in fur stoles were coming out with their tuxedo'ed dates and heading for the valet parking lot. The diners in the main room — bedecked in chandeliers and paneled in warm woods — constituted a cross section of the Marine Park neighborhood: Italian old ladies, African-American couples, Chinese families, extended Irish clans sitting at tables holding 16, and the strains of Happy Birthday rising over the room at intervals, as the pianist poised on a platform over the bar pounded the keys.
The menu hits all the old Italian-American classics with some newfangled stuff thrown in, mainly on the specials menu, which often features wild boar stew, arugula and orange salad, and burrata. We stuck with the historic stuff, including an amazing platter of fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers, and baby plum tomatoes, with the only nod to modernity a faint drizzle of balsamic vinegar. In anticipation of heavier food to follow, we also enjoyed a jam-packed Michael's salad, featuring button mushrooms, pickled eggplant, ripe tomatoes, and a dozen other nicely dressed ingredients.
The red variety of clam sauce with linguine featured a delightful broth that owed nothing to tomato paste, featuring giant quantities of briny minced clams, utterly enjoyable and as light as an ocean breeze. Arriving at the same time was a hulking veal chop of the tenderest meat, flattened and breaded. We finished with a shared slice of spumoni, garnished with chocolate syrup and whipped cream, as the piano player launched into "Bella Notte" from Lady and the Tramp. Espresso was provided at the end of the meal, "corrected" with Sambuca. Michael' s has a serious wine list with some good values. 2929 Avenue R, Brooklyn, (718) 998-7851.
While everyone in Williamsburg has heard of Bamonte's, Frost is more obscure, located at the corner of Humboldt and Frost (hence the frigid name). It dates to 1959, when wave upon wave of immigrants from the hilltop town of Teggiano in far southern Campania engulfed this neighborhood. The décor still seems European, with the square dining room featuring big arched windows that look out onto a very plain neighborhood of frame houses, and moody marine paintings. Jeopardy was playing on the monitor as a carafe of house red wine arrived.
A meal begins with a free plate of roasted green chile peppers, spicy as hell, and the menu concentrates on seafood, vegetables, and wonderful baked pastas. A friend and I enjoyed a roasted artichoke loaded with garlicky bread-crumb stuffing and a plate of the signature eggplant rollatini, called simply "stuffed eggplant," filled with masses of fresh ricotta and drowned in a sprightly tomato sauce.
One irresistible entrée was an oddball casserole of baked cheese ravioli mantled in mozzarella and nicely browned, over which our waiter sprinkled parmesan cheese. Fleshy complement was a festive platter of chicken Sicilian (get "bone-in") in a very garlicky wash of olive oil and chicken fat. Other good choices include spaghetti with meatballs or sausages, pork chops with pickled hot cherry peppers, scungilli fra diavolo (conch in a spicy red sauce), and lobsters done several ways. 193 Frost Street, Williamsburg, (718) 389-3347.
Perched on the lip of the sunken Ft. Hamilton Parkway on the border of Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights, Colandrea New Corner is the hardest of the Brooklyn old-timers to find. Founded in 1936, it's also one of the largest, with three formal dining rooms and a long barroom. One surprise is the number of gambling opportunities afforded patrons, including Lotto forms stacked on the bar, a scratch-off-card machine, and Power Ball monitors.
The menu sprawls pleasantly, with all the standards inspired by southern Italian and Sicilian cuisine included. One of the most spectacular dishes is an appetizer referred to a spiedini alla Romana: a pound of mozzarella wrapped in bread and deep fried, with a sharp lemon and anchovy sauce poured over the top. This is really the only app you need, though there are a half dozen wonderful shellfish offerings, a Caesar salad, fried calamari, and fried ravioli.
New Corner does a longer list of pastas than similar places, but once again the baked pastas are the things to get, including two types of baked ziti, one with eggplant name-checking Sicily, the other the Sorrento Peninsula, tossed with clouds of ricotta and topped with mozzarella. Many of the mains come with very Sicilian-style potato fritters rather than pasta, including a classic chicken cacciatore with capers and mushrooms in a massive serving adequate for three people. A popular side dish is a pair of giant meatballs in tomato sauce, without any pasta accompanying. It's like a value-added feature of the meal, a little extra New World indulgence. But the best dish on the menu is probably zuppa di clams, available as an app or entrée. 7201 8th Avenue, Dyker Heights, (718) 833-0800.
While most of these ancient red-sauced restaurants offer some combo of Southern Italian and Sicilian cooking, Joe's of Avenue U is exclusively Sicilian. Located in the historic village of Gravesend — the only one of the six original towns of Brooklyn that was English rather than Dutch — Joe's has occupied this space in the shadow of the F tracks since the early 1960s, and the Naugahyde and Formica décor attest to it. There's also a nicely limned mural of the Sicilian countryside.
The entrance hallway sports a display of Joe's amazing oil-slicked vegetables, including chickpeas, baby artichokes, broccoli rabe, and escarole, among a number of others — this place is a vegetarian's paradise.
The restaurant channels the focaccerias of Palermo — snack shops where you can get seafood salads, oil-glossed vegetable dishes, pastas, and small sandwiches called vasteddi, featuring two types of cheese and thin-sliced cow spleen — it's much better than it sounds. Alternatively, you can grab a panelle sandwich — little fried raviolis stuffed with chickpea puree, reminding you of the North African underpinnings of Sicilian cuisine. In the seafood arena, the combined octopus and squid salad is a wonder. Pastas excel, too, including the one most beloved of Sicilians: bucatini with a sauce of sardines and fennel. The lasagna is spectacular — served with meat sauce and extra meatballs on the side. For Italian food lovers only passingly familiar with Sicilian cuisine, Joe's of Avenue U is a walk on the wild side. 287 Avenue U, Gravesend, (718) 449-9285.
While the food may be better at Michael's and Joe's of Avenue U, there's no place quite as much fun as Bamonte's. Founded in 1902 by immigrants from Nola, Italy, just east of Naples, Bamonte's is one of the city's oldest continuously operating restaurants, the setting for numerous TV episodes and films, and it shows every year of its venerable age. You can still see bouffant hairdos in the front barroom, where all the classic cocktails are still in evidence. The tuxedo'ed waiters are all old-timers, and will gladly talk you through the menu's complicated list of selections.
The sprawling dining room, done in mellow tones and sometimes containing tables of priests in their collars, ends in a glassed-in kitchen, said to be the world's first open kitchen. (According to legend, this is so mobsters could see that their food wasn't being poisoned.) The menu is the perfect evocation of Italian-American cuisine, including a spaghetti with meat sauce and meatballs that could serve as a model for cooking schools, if this plebian dish were taught there. The spiedini de Romana doesn't match New Corner's in sheer opulence, but it's a great toasted cheese sandwich anyway.
The baked clams are a "don't miss" dish, and so is the chicken francese, putting on French airs for a working-class constituency, and the pork chops with peppers (sweet or hot, or both) is the city's most perfect evocation of that dish. The wine list has lately been tinkered with to highlight Central Italian wines, but the food will still have you dreaming of Naples' harbor, with its outstretched arms of Sorrento and Ischia. 32 Withers Street, Williamsburg, (718) 384-8831.
HERE ARE FIVE MORE
Ferdinando's Focacceria (151 Union Street, Red Hook, 718-855-1545) — Founded 100 years ago, this Sicilian old-timer is picturesque, but the food, while excellent, is a little more mainstreamed (i.e. — fewer unreconstructed Sicilian specialties) than that of Joe's of Avenue U.
L & B Spumoni Gardens (2725 86th Street, Gravesend, 718-449-1230) — This 1939 gem really hits its stride in summer, when the outdoor tables throng, but winter is the time to sit indoors in the restaurant and enjoy huge servings of pasta and heroes perfectly executed.
Garguilo's (2911 W 15th Street, Coney Island, 718-266-4891) — This cavernous 1907 hall miraculously persists, nearly the same vintage as nearby Totonno's, and now given over mainly to banquets. Anything featuring with clams is recommended.
La Sorrentina (6522 11th Avenue, Dyker Heights, 718-680-9299) — Though this place only dates to the 1980s, it seems much older in its versions of Italian-American standards, from beans with escarole soup, to tripe stewed with potatoes, to grooved cavatelli with ground-beef sauce.
Leo's Casa Calamari (8602 3rd Ave, Bay Ridge, (718-921-1900) — Home of the spectacular broccoli rabe hero, and, of course, perfect fried calamari in heaping servings.