Founded in 1904, Ferdinando’s Focacceria is the city’s oldest Sicilian restaurant and also one of the longest running Italian restaurants in NYC — outdone only by Rao’s (1896) and Bamonte’s (1900). It began as a lunch counter selling small round sandwiches to longshoremen who worked on the nearby Columbia Waterfront docks on the western edge of Cobble Hill. This style of sandwich reflected the focaccerias of Palermo, Sicily's capital, and two stuffings were the most common: cow spleen, ricotta, and shredded caciocavallo cheese; and the chickpea-stuffed fried ravioli called panelle, often with potatoes. Both historic sandwiches are still available at Ferdinando’s Focacceria, located at 151 Union Street, just west of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
I hadn’t eaten there for over a decade, and had heard from various sources that it had become mediocre (in truth, I hadn’t been impressed the last time I ate there). But I had to see for myself, while also craving the sorts of dishes that make seafood- and vegetable-heavy Sicilian cuisine unique. The current owner is the restaurant’s fourth: Frank Huff, who has been running the place since 1975, now aided by his three sons.
You may recognize the deep dark space from when it made an appearance in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. The stamped tin ceiling, rickety tables flanked by bent-wood chairs, historic photos of Sicily, rustic brick walls, and opalescent globe lights display restaurant design principles of a century ago. It all adds up to create a room that feels like it was a perpetually working-class joint with no pretensions.
A friend and I were seated in the back, next to an open window through which we could see a neighbor planting her backyard garden. First to arrive was a seafood salad ($23) that was mainly made up of squid and octopus, crunchy celery, and an olive-oil dressing. It was superb, supple and pungent with garlic, especially as served with the small round rolls made on the premises, the same ones used in the sandwiches. A baked artichoke ($13) soon followed, charred on the edges of the sturdier leaves, with a seasoned bread crumb stuffing so profuse and moist it qualified as pudding. It wasn’t surprising, though, because bread crumbs are often used everywhere in Sicilian cuisine, sometimes as a more affordable (and practical) substitute for grated cheese.
We chased our seafood salad and stuffed artichoke with a vastedda ($10), one of those longshoreman’s sandwiches, this one concentrating on spleen and two cheeses on a roll slathered in olive oil. The spleen tastes like grainy liver, a bit funky in a way but softened by the smeared ricotta and shredded caciocavallo. (Back in Sicily, there’s no ricotta in the sandwich, a Neapolitan ingredient that may have been added at Ferdinando’s for the first time.)
Next came one of the restaurant’s huge rice balls, super crisp on the outside and stuffed with ground beef and peas. We went for the deluxe edition ($10), which comes smothered in tomato sauce and cheese. Yes, one of these glistening orbs could be a full meal, especially if you call for an extra roll or two — which a server will cheerfully provide — to sop up the sauce.
Of the pastas and other main courses, some strictly Sicilian and some not, we went for the most Sicilian: pasta con sarde ($20) is unique to the island, pulverizing sardines and fennel into a savory tomato sauce sweetened with raisins and topped with bread crumbs. This version is subtle, and less canned-tasting (which is not necessarily a bad thing) than the more assertive version available at, say, Joe’s of Avenue U in Gravesend, another Brooklyn Sicilian mainstay.
Indeed, as the oldest Sicilian restaurant in town, the menu at Ferdinando’s has assimilated more influences from nearby regions of Italy like Calabria, Bari, and Campania through the years via other immigrants than those Sicilian restaurants which launched in the 50s and later. This is especially true at the very newest Sicilian restaurants in town, places like Pane Pasta and Amuni, where the menu reflects the food eaten in contemporary Palermo, rather than a century-old view of it.
Nevertheless, as a nostalgic reflection of the Italian food that fed generations of longshoremen working at the Brooklyn docks, Ferdinando’s Focacceria is unsurpassed, and it was a real pleasure to eat it while mulling over the history of the neighborhood. We finished up with an excellent cannoli ($8) — crunchy, and filled to order with ricotta that was fluffier and fresher tasting, and pleasantly lacking the candied fruit and chocolate chips often added to fancier versions in pastry shops — and then strolled down to the waterfront, where giant container-port cranes have replaced the bustling human scene of a century ago.
Interested in other Sicilian restaurants and places that explore Sicilian regional cuisine? See this newly published map.