Literary City Guide: Carroll Gardens

Originally written for EAT THIS POEM


“As you may have heard, all the writers are in Brooklyn these days. It’s the place to be. You’re simply not a writer if you don’t live here. Google “Brooklyn writer” and you’ll get, Did you mean: the future of literature as we know it?” – ‘I Write in Brooklyn. Get Over It.’”

— Colson Whitehead, Published in the New York Times on March 2nd, 2008.



Relationship to Carroll Gardens: Raised in Carroll Gardens with a brief stint in Amherst, MA for college.

Writer you'd like to invite to dinner: Joseph Mitchell for some great, old New York stories.

Chef you'd like to prepare the meal: Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen fame.

Writing soundtrack: Folksy guitar songs, my “Higher Love” Pandora station, or peace and quiet.

Pen or Pencil: Pen

Coffee or Tea: Coffee to start, tea to stay starting.

Paperback or Hardback: Paperback



BookCourt. It’s not just an independent bookstore, it’s the literary pulse of Brooklyn. Located on busy Court Street, the Zook Family has been serving the likes of literati since 1981, and you’d be hard-pressed to not find what you’re looking for in their sun-literary shop. (Snag a seat in the back under the sunroof.) No one shows more support for local authors than BookCourt does, and that fervor has turned the store into one of the top event series in the country. Take the wall of titles devoted to staff selections seriously as everyone who works here is a real bookworm. 

The Community Bookstore. People don’t walk into this dimly lit bookstore… they look both ways before slowly venturing in. Just a couple of blocks down from BookCourt, this independent shop looks like the type of place that might house the portal to another dimension. Owner John Scioli has been the keeper of this beautifully disorganized new and used mess of books since 1985. Once inside, be mindful, for any sudden movement might send a tower of books crashing. John won’t mind though; he’s used to it. Oh, and if you’re too nervous to enter, you’re not alone. Most people are happy just leafing through his boxes of $1 books right outside the store.

Freebird Books. If you venture away from the Court Street traffic and down towards the Brooklyn waterfront, you’ll come across this homely bookstore on pleasant Columbia Street. (Go in the late afternoon/evening to catch a pretty Brooklyn sunset while you’re at it.) Open only on weekends, this store is home to a sweet collection of books on New York culture and history. Community-minded and friendly, the owner also currently houses Books Through Bars, a nonprofit providing help to prisoners looking to gain access to the printed word. (Side note: Freebird is a great place to mill around in while you wait for your table to open up down the block at Pok Pok NY.) 


The Carroll Gardens Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. This traditional Carnegie library has been a strong community resource for the neighborhood since 1905. Located on the corner of a tree-lined brownstone block, it’s still a wonderful place to read, write, and study as the sun pours in through big, old windows. Popular with young families, the library also hosts a number of weekly kids events and art programs.  


The Brooklyn Book Festival. Held at Brooklyn Borough Hall and Plaza every autumn, this renowned book fair is the largest indoor/outdoor free literary event in New York City. Last year’s event drew an estimated 45,000 people to Brooklyn! There’s no better event to rub shoulders with national and international bestselling authors, support your favorite emerging writers, and attend everything from themed readings and panel discussions to author signings and poetry performances. This year, the festival will be held on September 14, 2014, but there will be literary-themed events taking place at bookstores, parks, theaters, and libraries all week. 

The Brooklyn Writers Space Reading Series. A membership organization that provides quiet office space for over 700 writers, their free public readings are held every month at BookCourt, just down the block from their Court Street location. The series features both published and unpublished authors.

BAM: Brooklyn Academy of Music. While BAM is best known for its theater, dance, and film series, they also host a prize medley of readings, lectures, and storytelling events.  

Sackett Street Reading Series. The Sackett Street Writers' Workshop was born out of eight writers meeting in the kitchen of one woman's Brooklyn brownstone. It is now a creative home for over 2,000 writers. A number of their free reading events are held at BookCourt. 


Brooklyn Literary Walking Tour. You can hold the historic neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights responsible for placing Brooklyn on the literary map. On the second Sunday of each month, the  Greenwich Village Literary Pub Crawl crosses the bridge to offer a walking tour that shows off where some of the most famous writers lived. Find out where W.H. Auden was inspired or where Truman Capote put his pen, and where the likes of Hart Crane, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Henry Miller, Thomas Wolfe, and Richard Wright all lived. It’s a reservation worth making. 

Jalopy Theater and School of Music. Just kissing the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel lives a hidden, rustic gem of a red velvet-curtained music venue that, ironically, leaves you feeling very far from Brooklyn. Wearing their love for folk and roots music on their sleeves, owners Geoff and Lynette Wiley have a good thing going on this Carroll Gardens stretch of “road less traveled by.” Go early for some comfort food and brew at their  Jalopy Tavern next door or to Phil’s Crummy Corner for some cheap beer and homemade empanadas before plopping down in an old church pew for a toe-tapping, banjo-picking good time.

“Two floors above the butcher
First door on the right
And life filled to the brim
As I stood by my window
And looked out on those
Brooklyn Roads.”

— Neil Diamond, “Brooklyn Roads”



Court Street Grocers. This homegrown grocery shop not only sources great specialty food products in a neatly packed space, they happen to rule seriously over the classic breakfast sandwich. I don’t know how they get scrambled eggs, melted white cheddar, and arugula on ciabatta to taste so good, but they do. (Add bacon, you can thank me later.)

Caputo’s Bake Shop. Skip brunch and do how the locals do. Make Caputo’syour first early morning stop for a cup of coffee ($.95) and a buttered onion roll fresh out of the oven ($.50). Established in 1904 by the Caputo Family, their long, striped yellow and blue bread bags may be the #1 most recognizable logo in Carroll Gardens, and you can be sure that whatever neighborhood restaurant you’re dining at will have sourced their bread from them. I’ll leave you with two words: Lard Bread.

D’Amico Foods. An old Carroll Gardens hangout, this homey 66-year old shop still roasts around 300 to 500 pounds of coffee every day. Like Caputo’s, the coffee served at most neighborhood restaurants will have come from D’Amico’s and you wouldn’t even know it. Aside from a serious selection of coffee, they also make a mean Italian hero piled high with deli meat of your choosing (tip: the roast beef is roasted in-house and sells out fast). These days most people ask for their coffees to go; the D’Amicos are slightly nostalgic for the days when customers would stick around. If you go, take your coffee to a table in the back and get to know Joanny, Francis, and Frank D’Amico. They’ll have some good Brooklyn stories for you. 

Smith Canteen. With its carrara marble café tables and romantic marriage of mirrors, tin, and tile, this corner café is a lovely “Rue de Martyrs”-inspired Parisian respite in a former working-class Italian neighborhood. Offering locally sourced and a seasonally changing array of pastries, sandwiches, soups and salads, Smith Canteen and the Carroll Street Green Market (across the street) hold hands together in pleasant partnership. Grab a tiny table by the window or take a stand at the coffee counter, but don’t leave without pairing your Counter Culture coffee with a homemade fruity pop tart. 


Lucali. What’s a trip to Carroll Gardens without a quick stop for pizza and calzones? The line for this warm and cozy restaurant may be long, but it’ll be worth the wait once you’re seated and closing your eyes in delight between bites. Served piping hot from the brick oven will come a thin-crust pie in an incredible wash of a grandmother’s secret sauce, painted with toppings of your choosing, a mix of mozzarella cheeses and a final grating of Grana Padano. It’s pizza to write home about. The dimly-lit space is split between just a dozen wood tables and an open marble kitchen counter, so any chair will be a good chair for you to sit and gaze at handsome owner and pizzaiolo, Mark Iacono, as he rolls dough with his customers’ empty BYOB wine bottles. 

Ferdinando’s Focacceria. You’ll soon want to add this old-school Sicilian restaurant to your old-world charm bracelet. In the 1950’s, Ferdinando’s was thelunchtime spot for nearby dockworkers with lines out the door for its transcendent panelle sandwich. Fluffy fried chickpea fritters dug into a warm house-baked semolina roll with a heap of ricotta and grated cheese. Go and see how many aged folks walk through the door having made the long drive back to the old neighborhood for their favorite childhood food memory. And when they’re done, you know they wash it down with a Manhattan Special, an espresso soda that has been made in Brooklyn since 1895, except Ferdinando’s is the only place left that has it on draft. Go before you can’t go anymore.

La Slowteria. Down the south end of Court Street is where you’ll find this super authentic, super relaxed Mexican food spot that goes well beyond tacos and burritos. Hailing from and operating a restaurant in the vacation-friendly beach town of Tulum, chef and owner Hugo Orozco brought his slow-cooked food to Carroll Gardens after meeting and falling in love with a woman who was visiting from New York (now his wife and co-owner). Their corn tortillas are hand-pressed to order; their cocktails and juices are hand-squeezed and one-of-a-kind. Hard to put their menu into words, this is where you go for the traditional recipes fondly remembered, unforgettably deconstructed, thoughtfully re-imagined, and beautifully presented. Guacamole will never taste the same again. 

Buttermilk Channel. Named after the mile-long tidal strait separating Governor’s Island from Brooklyn, this sweet ‘n salty brunch and dinner spot has been speaking the local language for a few years now. When your menu boasts egg scrambles mixed with hot sausage from the local butcher (Esposito’s) and handmade mozzarella from the local cheese purveyor (Caputo’s Fine Foods), you might as well start counting the number of neighborhood hearts you’ve won over. From the gratis honey and sea salt popovers to the maple and bacon-roasted almond snacks to the oh-so-popular buttermilk fried chicken and cheddar waffles, the portions here carry weight and will have you leaning back in Brooklyn-infused food bliss.  


Court Pastry Shop. Don’t you dare leave Carroll Gardens without a white box of cookies wrapped in string. Brothers Vincent and Gasper Zerilli have been wiping their flour-dusted hands on aprons since they were kids. Between their crispy cannolis, cream-filled lobster tails, flaky orangey ricotta-filled sfogliatelles, and old-fashioned Italian cookies, this charming Italian bakery has been putting smiles on faces since 1948, wooing people in off the street with their sweet smells and, oh yes, the best homemade lemon ices around. Forget the wedding cake! My husband and I served platters upon platters of Court Pastry cookies when we got married. Go for the rainbows.

Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain. What was a pharmacy for nearly 100 years is now an adorable, old-timey dessert stop with a paper-hat wait-staff serving old-fashioned egg creams, ice cream sodas, shakes and sundaes from behind a counter lined with old apothecary wood cabinets and drawers. Oozing with charm, it’s hard to know which is sweeter – the hot and cold treats or the vintage Brooklyn, penny candy décor.

Margaret Palca Bakes. This utilitarian, unadorned bakeshop is where Margaret, herself, gets the baking done. Steal a peek behind the counter and you’ll see a little, bandana-wearing Margaret in her kitchen folding batter and transferring hot trays of cookies, brownies, pies, and cakes from the oven. Her store is the perfect place to pick up a coffee and a bag of her famous, buttery rugelach before strolling down the Columbia Street waterfront in either direction -- towards Red Hook, or to Brooklyn Bridge Park. Order a simple sandwich made on her homemade focaccia or a container of one of her prepared salads. Either way, no matter what you get, it will have been made with love. By Margaret. 


1. Favorite view: The Culver Viaduct. For just a couple short stops between Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, the F and G trains run above ground. Whether approaching or departing the Smith-Ninth Station in Carroll Gardens (the highest subway station in the world!), I always make a point of putting my phone or book down to take in the industrial landscape of the Gowanus Canal, the Brooklyn skyline, and everyone’s favorite relic of an olden Brooklyn, the heavily instagrammed Kentile Floors sign.

2. Favorite place to write: For hours (hours!) in the window of Ted & Honey. I’ve known this particular “red” corner since I was a kid when it was just thatreally good deli next door to Cobble Hill Park. Now, it’s just that really good café… next door to Cobble Hill Park. When I can’t snag a stool in the window, I make a beeline for one of three seats at the tea and coffee counter. They have a good-looking breakfast/lunch menu that’s locally sourced, and they always manage to have the perfect play-list going at a volume that doesn’t distract. It may be “coffeehouse cool” mixed with a push of the stroller scene, but I don’t mind it one bit. If you find yourself at Ted & Honey in the warmer months, ask for your sandwich to go and then grab a bench next door in Cobble Hill Park.

3. Favorite museum: Of course I'm partial to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Their temporary exhibits beget animated brunch conversation and their permanent collections of Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Middle Eastern sculptures, wall reliefs, and dummies can’t be beat. Not to mention every first Saturday of the month (known as “Target First Saturdays”), the museum stays open from 5-11 pm, offering free admission and the chance to move from room to room where you’ll find everything from live music and dancing to films and trunk shows to pop-up curator talks and hands-on interactive workshops. With the restaurant open and the bar serving drinks all evening, it can honestly feel like one huge house party. Target First Saturday was one of the first dates I went on with my husband. 

4. Favorite coffee shop: Kings Coffee is co-owned by two Brooklyn brothers, Dominic and John, who brew espresso and sell beans out of their 300 square foot open garage on one of the quietest streets in Carroll Gardens. In warm weather, I love walking up to the bar, with standing room for two, and ordering the Breukelen Dutch – a cold brew coffee made with the country’s first CoffeeGa Ridge, a 3.2L cold drip hand made from bamboo and glass. Drinking coffee at Kings makes me feel really cool and like I’m drinking coffee without anyone in the world knowing. 

5. Favorite thing about Carroll Gardens: Even with the scary number of people moving here, it still feels like the same small town I grew up in next to a big city.

Good Food Supermarket

My boyfriend’s mother, a neighborhood native, lived here for thirty years before fleeing the nest for another part of Brooklyn. When she did return, in 2005, things were a little different. There was a place called “The Grocery” that did not, in fact, sell groceries; Johnnie’s green awning was intact, but his bootery was missing; birthday cupcakes for class parties could no longer be purchased from College Bakery; and where the hell did the Key Food on Court Street go?

“Omigod, I found the Key Food,” she announced one day. “And it’s the greatest Key Food ever. Smaller than what I remember… more Italian things like mozzarella and prosciutto di Parma… and guess what, at the counter, they’re all talking Italian.”

She had walked two blocks too far that day (past the CVS, which used to be the Key Food) and stumbled into Good Food, a family-operated grocery shop that’s been in business for 75 years. Discount and sale signs taped to the door and windows make it somewhat difficult to see what’s going on inside and perhaps that’s part of the reason why a number of us tend to walk right on by (excluding my boyfriend’s mother, of course). It also happens to be smack dab between two other groceries, Santo’s Farm and Gourmet Fresh. Talk about competition.  


“No, no, no – Gourmet Fresh is good for business,” says owner Allegrino Sale, 57, who hails from the tiny fishing village of Mola di Bari in Southern Italy. “They have pre-packed meat. We have fresh meat. When people realize this, they come to us.”

There was a time, however, when this neighborhood only went to Good Food.

Bearing the same name, the store was originally opened by the Bruno families, the uncles of NYC Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Joseph Bruno. Their store was one of the only markets in the neighborhood that had a butcher carving the meat right in front of you, and so for that reason people liked them. (That, and they spoke fluent Italian.) In 1979, after 43 years in business, the uncles sold their store (and the two buildings it takes up) to 24-year old Sale, a dedicated Key Food employee who worked for nine years over on the other side of Hamilton Avenue to help support his family. Key Food customers also shopped at Good Food, and Sale heard of the Brunos’ plan to sell through market chatter. 

In the 30s, as most of us are aware, Downtown Brooklyn saw the influx of Sicilians, Neapolitans and the Barese coming in by the boatload. After WWII, many were left jobless in their towns, and thousands of them came here to work, to find better work; the Red Hook waterfront was a great place to find it. Older folks that couldn’t drive were able to walk to work; that was the beauty of the neighborhood.

In 1970, at 15-years old, Sale immigrated to Carroll Gardens with his mother, father, sister and two brothers. With some difficulty, they were able to rent the top floor of an apartment on 4th Place between Court and Clinton Streets. Sale’s father worked as a longshoreman, and the whole family learned to contribute as best they could.

“Because of where we come from, our family, they teach us the traditions, they teach us the culture, but most of all, they teach us the family values,” Sale says, his Italian accent thick. “When we came from Italy, we came with that determination to work, to make money, to become somebody.”

Like many other Italian families in Carroll Gardens, when the money started to come in, it was reason enough to leave for places like Bensonhurst, Staten Island, New Jersey and Long Island - where the houses were detached, and their cars could be parked in driveways.


On the evening I’ve come to chat with Sale, the supermarket is a bit busy. It is 6 o’clock on a weeknight and everyone getting off the F train seems to be popping in for this, popping in for that. It’s nice to see.

“Come, I take you to my club,” he says, and we walk a few doors down to the Van Westerhout Cittadini Molesi Social Club, where Sale has been president for the last 11 years. An interior that, for years, I have tried to steal glimpses of without looking too curious although I don’t think it hurts to be so. In fact, I think you’ll find that the older Italians appreciate curiosity. I also think this is why Sale invites me in, even though I am a woman, and women are not permitted inside. He likes that I want to know about things.

As soon as we sit down, Sale offers me some wine, some Italian soda, espresso, anything I’d like. Espresso, I say, and someone else gets up to make it for me. Two men are playing Briscola, a trick-taking game that’s played with a deck of Italian cards. I see sports trophies, Italian memorabilia, flags, framed news and lots of old pictures.

“I don’t know if you noticed, but we changed the name on the street,” Sale says, referring to Court Street and 4th Place. “It’s called ‘Citizens of Mola di Bari Way.’” He turns around to point to the street sign that hangs on the back wall.

“Who comes in here?” I ask.

“This is a club, a private club, so only Barese people can join. Men, they come here to play cards and to see friends,” Sale says. “Years ago, at nighttime, you would walk down Court Street and see all the groups of people – from Bari, from Naples, from Sicily. And you heard the different dialects. When we speak in our dialect, no one can understand us, and we cannot understand them.” 

There’s an argumentative question that gets floated around both sides of the playing field these days, and that question is: Who’s more unfriendly? The old-timers or the newcomers?

I’m of the mind that people are people, everyone is different, and that we need to stop generalizing these groups as if a correct answer actually exists. There will always be someone nicer and there will always be someone nastier.

“I hear, in the store, that a lot of the ‘yuppies,’ that they’re not really friendly with the old people because they think – I don’t want to say it – but they think they’re one step better than them,” Sale says, carefully. “But I think a lot of the young people are very polite and very respectful. Of course they’re not going to talk to an old, Italian lady. They don’t feel comfortable talking to the old people because we all talk different. Young people speak more proper English, and most of the older people here still have that Italian accent because their parents came from Ellis Island.”

“Like you,” I say. “Your accent is thick!”

Sale looks at me if he’s never been told that before in his life.

“I still have my accent, eh?”


Young families dominate Carroll Gardens today, but these families are nowhere near the size of what a family in the 50s, 60s and 70s used to look like. Parents had 5,6,7,8 kids, and your cousins lived next door, and your mother lived downstairs and her brother lived up the block. You couldn’t just bring home a pound of pasta and a couple packages of chicken breast for dinner. You did a serious grocery shop and filled your freezer until you could barely close it. You did that, and you bought bread…lots of bread. Today, Good Food still offers these family-sized grocery plans, and I have to wonder: Who’s buying them?

The cheapest plan starts at $44.95 and for that you get: 2 chickens, 1 ½ lbs. chicken cutlets, 1 ½ lbs. pork chop, 1 ½ lbs. beef stew and 2 lbs. of chop meat. The most expensive plan costs $89.95 and that gets you: 3 lbs. eye round roast beef, 2 lbs. chicken cutlets, 1 ½ lbs boneless pork chops, 2 lbs. homemade sausage (sweet or hot), 3 lbs. pork roast, 2 lbs beef stew and 1 ½ lbs. spare ribs.

Holy Mola di Bari, that’s what I call “dinner”!

“We select all our own meat; we buy the whole neck and shoulders. At Christmastime, we do a veal scaloppini. The other supermarkets, they don’t have that.”

Today in the store, Sale is in charge of groceries while his brother manages the meat, and their sister works the register. Unfortunately, none of Sale’s three grown sons want to take over the store.

“I feel bad that a 75-year old store might have to go to strangers,” Sale says, his mind on retirement.


I can only hope that in thirty years, like my boyfriend’s mother, if I were to ever leave the neighborhood and come back again, that Good Food will be exactly where I remember it being.

Go stop in before it’s too late. Family Plan #4 should last you all winter.


Allegrino Sale

431 Court Street, Brooklyn NY

Photo by Max Flatow

Caputo's Fine Foods

"I’m going for a walk" is a statement that has likely been said over a million times in my parents’ house. We said it in the best of weather and we said it in the worst of weather. When I was sixteen and prone to sulkiness, I would add an exclamation point and a door slam to it. Snow, rain, heat wave and what have you, to go for a walk meant to clear your head, stretch your legs, see what’s out there and hopefully run into somebody good.

Secretly, I think what it really meant was: “I’m going to look for a snack.”

No matter what your taste buds are after, going hungry in this neighborhood can’t be done. Every block has at least one store you can’t make eye contact with because you know that once you do, you’re headed in, thumbing through dollars before you can say “Lemme get…”

There’s the empanada lady’s beef empanadas off the corner of Smith and Sackett; rainbow cookies from Court Pastry; two-bite prosciutto balls from Esposito’s (now that Joe’s S_perette is gone); peanut butter and honey smoothies from Nectar; mini-spanakopita from Sahadi’s; homemade blueberry pop tarts from Smith Canteen, a new addition; macarons from Sweet Melissa’s; panelles from Ferdinando’s; dumplings from Eton; tacos from Oaxaca.

But for me, nothing says “I’m going for a walk” quite like the walk to get some fresh mozzarella (and a crusty seeded twist to marry it with and rip apart). It’s my favorite snack and I know where to get it.


Caputo’s Fine Foods has been making their homemade mozzarella since 1973. Also: fresh ricotta, handmade pastas, sauces, soups, antipasto and comfort foods like lasagna, chicken cutlets and eggplant parmigiana. They sell breadsticks, cold cuts for sandwiches, imported oils and bottled anchovies, coffee beans, olives, preserved peaches and more. Lots more. Neighborhood-sick customers are pulling out of their driveways every day to make the trip from Jersey, Virginia and Pennsylvania; stores like Caputo’s are few and far between. And not everyone wants to stomach the maze of a tourist trap that is Eataly.


Second-generation owner Frank Caputo, 49, runs the business today, but its history begins with his father, Giuseppe Caputo – the original mozzarella master who moved his family of four from Bari in Italy to Brooklyn in 1972 with hopes of opening a store that would make him enough money to buy a nice, little house back in Italy. He’d had the same kind of business there – a store that saw him in a shirt and tie – but with his mother, sisters and one brother all living in Brooklyn, he thought he’d give business in the States a shot. If it didn’t work out, they’d go back home.  

Giuseppe, his wife Flora, and their two sons, Frank and Vito, lived on Nelson Street between Court and Clinton for about a year until they relocated to the apartment above the store. (The building went up for sale and although Giuseppe paid double its market value, it was a good thing he did, Frank says.) But leave it to the pesky, old Italian ladies who left the Caputos no other choice but to pack their bags (again) and split for Gravesend.

“The store would be closed, but the ladies would ring our bell and ask for a package of pasta or a dollar’s worth of cheese,” says Frank. “It’d be Christmas Day and they’d still ring the bell. My father used to get mad. He finally said ‘We have to move because if I keep telling them ‘no’ I’m gonna lose a lot of customers.’”

Despite the move, Frank and Vito still spent a lot of time in Carroll Gardens. Frank’s love for food – cooking it, eating it, talking about it – was born in the store. It’s where he learned how to make cheese; it’s where he practiced his pasta. The decision to carry on the family business, however, was his choice entirely, and it didn’t happen right away. In the Caputo household, if you wanted to work in the store, then you had to go to college. College first; Caputo’s second.

“I tell my kids the same thing my father told me: ‘You go to college. After college, if you want to come to the store, then I’m happy to have you.”

Frank graduated college with a degree in computer programming. Two weeks before he was about to start a job at Chase, he called to say he’d changed his mind – that he was going into the family business.

“I have no regrets,” he says. “I seriously love it here.”

He may love the store now, but twenty-five years ago, Frank and Vito went looking for a change.

“We opened a supermarket in Queens. We thought it’d be easier than working at the store because it’d be bigger and we’d have people working for us,” he admits. “But we didn’t like it. We were working seven days a week / fifteen-hour days. I wasn’t married at the time, but if I was, well, I don’t think I’d still be married.”

So the brothers came back to the store. They worked for twenty years alongside their parents until the curd was officially handed over to Frank in 2001. Vito, having grown tired of the business, moved to Uruguay with his girlfriend.

“It just wasn’t for him anymore,” says Frank. “He’s happy now.”


I grew up on Polly-O, but I can’t eat the supermarket, factory-made mozzarella anymore. Not with Caputo’s a few blocks away. It’s just too dry and rubbery for me. Frank is super picky about the curd he uses and there’s really no comparison when it comes to quality. (Unfortunately, his distributor is tight-lipped on the farm from which it comes.) Stretching out a batch every 90 minutes or so, Frank has three hours (according to the health department) to sell it fresh. Once you refrigerate cheese, the fresh-o-meter goes down because it dries out, changing its texture. (Frank will use that cheese in his lasagna and ravioli fillings.) There’s a bit more waste involved in his process, but in the end the mozzarella kneads up so moist and creamy that it will melt into the contours of the plastic container you’ve carried it home in. Once home, plop it onto a cutting board and get slicing.

“The mozzarella is our number one item,” says Frank. “And then we have our raviolis.”


Lobster, eggplant, porcini, pesto, chicken and smoked mozzarella, gorgonzola and walnut, white bean and olive, arugula and ricotta, grilled vegetable, roasted pepper and mozzarella, artichoke, pumpkin…

“If a new filling comes to mind, I’ll make a batch by hand to see if the combination works,” says Frank. “I used to do a truffle and goat cheese that was really good, but it wasn’t popular because of the price. Truffles are expensive.”

Frank’s pastas are so beautiful that you’ll want to collect them all when you’re there. One minute you’re holding the orecchiette and the next minute you’ve spotted the cavatappi. Should you try the basil tomato fettucine or stick with your usual spinach spaghetti? Torteglioni or ditalini? The choices are endless.

There may be competition around the neighborhood but Caputo’s welcomes it as it keeps them on their toes.

“Other businesses will try to sell our products – they’ll do a mozzarella or a ravioli – but we’re not cutting corners to make the extra dollar.”


Caputo’s won’t cut corners, but I’m about to cut mine and go for a walk. Who’s coming with me?

Frank Caputo

460 Court Street, Brooklyn NY

Photos by Max Flatow 

The Community Bookstore

The independent bookstore has never stopped doing its best to breathe underwater. From the encroachment of computers and the Internet to the big box chains and their tack sticker discounts to Amazon and their even steeper, virtual tack sticker discounts to the e-book explosion that has us skipping both stores and ink, independent retailers have long been cursed with having to roll with the punches.

You either roll, or you roll out.


It has never been an easy business and so what many of these bookstores have done, and will do, is look to diversify their stock so that additional profits can be earned (see: the postcards, the pens, the t-shirts, the toys). They will host (and now charge for) author readings, book launches, book club meetings, and story-telling events – with hopes that the store will start to feel like an extension of our home – that other room we feel like being in now. They will constantly be thinking of ways to reinvent themselves, innovate and keep up. 

Except for one. (And we all know it’s not BookCourt.)


The Community Bookstore is a Cobble Hill mainstay. Its doors have been open - literally, even in wintertime - at its Court Street location since 1985. It is a beautiful (and maddening) new and used mess of what it means to be a freak for the printed word. It is also the perfect place to go off and lose your mind in, and one day I know I’ll find the book that gets pulled from the shelf to reveal the portal to another dimension.  

The store’s space (an oxymoron in its own right) is warm and dim and dusty and tight like an old attic you’d rather not crawl through to find something in, even though you know perfectly well that what you’re looking for is there. We throw out our sensitivity to clutter when we are here; we do our best to save the compulsive need to see things clean and organized for home.

Also, no sudden movements - you might knock down a book tower. While other bookstores’ aisles allow for popping squats on the floor, Community’s aisles just seem to impede on the storage for more and more books. It’s almost as if the negative space is more of the encumbrance, rather than what’s filling it.   

Only one madman can run this store and that man is John Scioli. 

Scioli was raised an only child in an apartment on Spring and Mulberry streets in Little Italy. His mother was a homemaker; his father worked in a chromium-plating factory.

“I’m Italian, but people assume I’m Jewish,” John says, his eyes not quite meeting mine. “No one equates bookstores with Italians. My mother wanted me to open a restaurant or a ravioli store. She said ‘You can’t make it with books.’”

There may be truth to that statement, but it didn’t stop John and his wife from crossing the bridge and opening up a small bookstore on 7th Avenue in Park Slope that they aptly named The Community Bookstore. (“Better than calling it Book Nook, right?” he jokes.) The year was 1971. Middle-income hippies were buying majestic brownstones they could renovate with two hands while knives were cutting tensions between Latino and Italian communities. Park Slope was on the cusp of gentrification. 

“Basically, yeah, we were the first bookstore in Park Slope,” John says, as if the thought never crossed his mind. “We were thinking about what to do with our lives and we felt there was a need for a bookstore. I mean, there was a card store and a drug store and they carried some romances and some paperbacks, but that was about it.”

The store did well, and three years later, they opened up a second location in Brooklyn Heights on Montague Street. During that time, however, John and his wife divorced. She took the Slope; he took the Heights. He was there for eleven years until the fateful day when an ice cream chain rode up and offered his landlord triple the amount he was paying in rent. The neighborhood petitioned and wrote letters, but in the end ice cream won. John scrambled to find a new space, and in 1985, he purchased the corner building on Warren and Court streets, making himself at home on the top two floors. 

“The space was a bar. It was a neighborhood bar and a lot of the old-timers remember it as a rather rowdy bar. It was called Benson’s.  Or maybe it was called the Pub. I remember when the store was empty, and I was putting up the bookshelves one night. The police stopped by and said ‘What’re you gonna put in here?’ and I said ‘A bookstore’ and they said ‘Oh, good, we won’t have to respond to so many calls then.’” 

The corner may not be as raucous as it once was, but it certainly gets its share of foot traffic and stroller wheels. John can often be seen outside futzing with his books, smoking cigarettes and chatting with his customers and neighbors.      

He stops our conversation to say “Buona sera” to the elder Italian man who walks slowly with groceries.

“I say ‘Hi’ to many, many people,” John says. “I do it for that – the social bit of it.” 

Truth is, John doesn’t have to do it at all; he could retire. In fact, every year he gets to pretend that he’s retired. For the months of August and September, he will close the store and fly to the south of France to visit his stepson and then to Russia to see some friends.

“I don’t miss the store at all when I’m away,” he says. “And I don’t go near any bookstores.”

That may sound grumpy but John does feel the neighborhood needs a place like Community. In a rapidly changing area, any remnants of the familiar are likely to play a part in the preservation of nostalgia. Or maybe, in a neighborhood that keeps getting pricier and pricier, we just love seeing things that could potentially cost us a buck.

And there’s no other reason to give as to why John has so many, so many, so many books other than to say…     

“I’m a hoarder. My apartment looks like this, too. I have this psychological problem about not throwing things away.” 

Despite the accumulation of books and things (and paper coffee cups), John can tell you off the top of his head if he’s got a specific title in stock. Computer? Who needs a computer? 

“This is, like, what I do, you know?” he says, shrugging it off. “I bet people go into Barnes & Noble and ask for Old Man and the Sea and the salespeople have to ask them who wrote it so they can look it up.  Those people don’t have a clue,” he said.

Then he smiles for the first time and says, “If you didn’t know, Hemingway wrote it.” 

Thanks, John.  

John Scioli 

212 Court Street, Brooklyn NY

Photos by Max Flatow

Sam’s Restaurant Pizzeria

I’m sure there are plenty of people reading this that have something to say about Louis “Brooklyn Lou” Migliaccio, the owner of Sam’s Restaurant Pizzeria on Court Street. Perhaps you think he’s rude. Maybe you find his service to be unbearably slow. It’s possible you think his pizza’s no great shakes. Believe me, you are entitled to that opinion; I’m not here to argue with you. Lou’s got a tongue. If I wanted to catch a movie at Cobble Hill Cinemas, I’d probably grab a quick tostada from Buddy’s Burrito and Taco Bar. And you want to talk pizza? I’m a Di Fara’s girl. 

How about a little respect though? Sam’s is 81-years-old. Do you go off on your 81-year-old grandfather? No. And that’s because your grandfather is who he is. Call him set in his ways. Call him a tough nut to crack. The point is, he’s not changing. And he shouldn’t have to. It’ll be up to you whether or not you want to adapt to him. I think you should. But that’s just me. 


Some things to keep in mind:  Lou’s on his own at the restaurant. He’s shopping for groceries, he’s working the kitchen, he’s bussing the tables, he’s taking your order, he’s fixing your drink, he’s calculating your check. Six days a week he’s there. In true restaurant-living style, he lived in the apartment upstairs until he was twelve, so if you’re there, you’re in his house. And like any house you go to visit, you’re a guest. You don’t tell your host what’s wrong with their house. 

“People are strange,” says Lou, 54, who now lives alone in his family’s brownstone on Clinton Street. “They question what I say. I don’t like that. I think I know my job. You can’t come in here and tell me what to do.”  

“I got people that get annoyed at me because I won’t open up their bottle of wine when they bring it in,” Lou says, citing an example of the type of requests that get under his skin. “I’m not BYOB. I have a liquor license. I say ‘no’ and then they ask me to make an exception. I can’t. I don’t think that’s fair. Saying ‘yes’ to them and ‘no’ to others. See, a regular won’t ask for something like that.” 

He continues.

“I’ve had people call on the phone to place an order only to show up, sit down, and say ‘but we ordered already.’ I tell them the take-out window is in the back. ‘Oh no, but we’re eating it here’ they say. Look, I’m sorry, but you can’t do that. If you order on the phone, it’s automatically take-out. They look at me like I’m wrong.”

Sam’s is of another time, but not just in its look. Yes, the tables don red and white checked tablecloths and the candy-apple vinyl booths squeak when you take a seat.  The flowers aren’t real, the old telephone booths are broken and there’s an overall eerie dimness that’s kind of hard to ignore. If I were alone at Sam’s, I’d half expect to catch the ghost of an old bartender pouring shots of scotch whiskey from behind the mirrored bar.

But if one of the reasons you go to Sam’s is to bask in its old world décor, you’re going to need to bring some old world decorum with you. What kind of a person argues against good manners? Look, the kids shouldn’t be running around the dining room. (Lou has six stitches in the back of his head due to unruliness.) Men shouldn’t expect to be served while wearing a tank top. (Beer Island’s just a train ride away.) Finish your snacks and your coffee before entering the restaurant. (You’re here to eat Sam’s food.)

None of this is to say that Lou doesn’t enjoy joking around… because he does. His humor may not sit well with certain customers, but most of them can follow his sarcasm, and they know he doesn’t mean any disrespect. When Lou tells your kid to ‘sit down and eat your pizza, or else I’ll tape you to the chair,’ he’s not actually going to tape them to the chair. This is Lou horsing around. Let him. It’s fun.

Sam’s doors have been open since 1930. Brothers Danny and Sam D’Arco (Lou’s great-uncles) planned on opening up the restaurant together, but Sam passed away before it could happen. It only made sense to name the restaurant after him. Over the years, Danny employed his family members to work at Sam’s, including newly immigrated nephew, Mario Migliaccio – Lou’s father. The year was 1950, and Mario started out washing dishes for $20-a-week.  

Today’s regular customers remember Mario as the pizza pie master who could be seen all the way in the back, peering out from the kitchen’s tiny take-out window.  Having worked at Sam’s for nearly fifty years, Mario’s apron strings untied in 2009 when the death of his wife, Rosa, incited him to return to the island of Ponza in Italy. It’s where the two of them were born and raised; they were next-door neighbors. Now, at 83-years-old, he’s happy to be home again. Finally, he can rest.

Anyone who has ever worked in the restaurant business is familiar with the exhaustion that comes with the job. Your life becomes the restaurant; there’s no way around it. 

“My dad was rarely at home because he was always here,” says Lou. “My mother, rest-in-peace, always told me ‘if you find something better, take it.’ This job, it drains you. I’m divorced because of this place.”

Tuesday is Lou’s only day off, and he makes sure to spend it with his 11-year-old daughter, Corinne.    

“I don’t do nothing for nobody on Tuesdays. That’s my daughter’s day. I drive 65-miles one way just to go see her. We do whatever she likes to do. ‘Dad, we’re gonna go fishing today so bring your fishing poles’ or ‘Dad, we’re gonna go to the movies so bring your bowling ball because we’re gonna go bowling after.’ I took her to Italy last summer. She finally met those strange voices on the phone. She loved it. She wants to go back. So, birthday present, we’re going back this summer.”

Talk to Lou for a little while and, trust me, you’ll see through the gruffness. He’s even the first to admit that he can be a little hard. 

“There are times that I don’t say things the proper way,” he discloses. “And since I can’t do it, I’ll say ‘I’m sorry, but I gotta tell it to you this way.’ People appreciate that. Look, I talk loud. That’s a defect I’ve had my whole life. I try to whisper, but I can’t do it.” 

There was one drizzly afternoon where Lou and I sat together for over two hours, just chitchatting in the dim of the restaurant, the television tuned to some bad AMC movie. We talked about “this and that” until I couldn’t take the tomato-y smells from the kitchen any longer. He fed me Pasta alla Siciliana with mozzarella and eggplant – a deliciously cozy dish – and smirked at me when I tried to refuse a third glass of wine. (The infamous “Louie pour” goes up to the rim. Watch out.)  In a heartbeat, Lou can really make you feel like family. 

Cathy Staiano, a Park Slope native, couldn’t agree with me more. The Staianos have been eating at Sam’s at a minimum of once a week for the last ten years.

“The food is great, and very fresh,“ says Cathy, whose favorite dishes include zuppa di mussels, fried shrimp, shrimp parmigiana and pizza with sausage.  

“Louie has always been so nice and so good to us. I feel like he’s a part of my family.” 

As for the customers who hate to wait for a table, Cathy doesn’t understand it. 

“If they were going to any other restaurant on Court Street or Smith Street, waiting for a table wouldn’t be a problem.”

“You can’t say I’m not working,” adds Lou, defending himself. “I’m going back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room. I only have two hands and two feet.”

To be perfectly honest, I’d rather wait a long time for my food, knowing it’s being made fresh to order, rather than having it already prepared and delivered quickly. Chicken cacciatore does not take twelve minutes.  

Please remember that going to Sam’s is more of a cultural experience. It’s not the venue to grab a fast bite. Back in the day, real time was spent around the dinner table, socializing and conversing over a shared meal. It wasn’t wham, bam, thank you ma’am. Relax.  Slow your pace. Let’s not forget that food is a means for establishing and maintaining connections amongst family and friends.  

Lou’s not worried about turning tables. What he cares about is maintaining the family’s recipes and dining traditions to the best of his abilities.  

And I think he’s doing a real good job at that. 

Lou "Brooklyn Lou" Migliaccio

238 Court Street, Brooklyn NY

Photos by Max Flatow

Saying Goodbye to Joe's S_uperette


About a year ago, I wrote a little piece on Joe's S_perette for neighborhood blog Carroll Gardens Diary. I tagged it: “If you don’t go, you don’t know.”   

Today, unfortunately, I write with a heavy heart: “If you didn’t go, you’ll never know.”


After more than fifty years of servicing the neighborhood, Joe’s is officially no longer. The deep fryer has been turned off. The last of the cold cuts have been sliced. Sodas, potato chips and canned goods have been given away to the deli next door, as well as to any stunned and nervous customer who found their way in to say goodbye, their heads in a fog because what will life look like (or taste like?) now without those little rice balls?

Due to a worsening condition of bone cancer, Leo Coladonato, the beloved owner who bought the deli from Joe in 1985, hadn’t been in the store since the last week of February. His right-hand man, Louie, had been working nonstop on his behalf to keep the business up and running. But it got to be too much. 

Some may think the shop's closing had something to do with the spat between chef Mark Iacono and neighborhood guy Benny Geritano last month, but Louie says that couldn't be further from the truth.    

“I can’t do it no more,” Louie says, his eyes affixed to the deli meat slicer he is scrubbing so that he can sell it to a friend for four hundred dollars. “I’m done with the balls. I can’t be rolling balls forever. I know people like ‘em, but I just can’t do it no more.”

For now, Louie’s plan is to go back to painting houses, storefronts and the like. Working at Joe’s for over twenty years, he’s looking forward to taking some time for himself. Local blog Pardon Me For Asking first reported Joe's closing.

“I’ve been locked in here a long time,” says Louie, who has been living on President Street for the last forty years. “My cousin got me started here when I was a kid. Over the years, Leo would fire this one, and he’d fire this one, and this one would quit, but me - I got stuck here seven days a week. I didn’t mind, but the last couple of years were hectic.”

Well, when you’ve got customers lining up for both sandwiches and rice balls, and you’re the only one manning the counter and the deep fryer, it’s no wonder Louie would feel the strain. 

Long-time Carroll Gardens resident and “friend of the store,” John Verderama, was happy to take some rice ball batter off of Louie’s hands. Yesterday, John and his wife spent the afternoon rolling two hundred balls with plans of freezing them (and keeping them frozen for as long as they can stand the temptation).

“How’d they come out?” I ask.

“Not too good, I bet,” Louie jokes from behind the counter.

“I don’t know how they’re gonna be until we fry ‘em, but we made ‘em a little bit bigger,” John says. “Louie’s got small hands.”

The two of them laugh.

Truth be told, no one but Louie and Leo will ever be able to replicate the store’s infamous rice ball miniatures. The recipe, which was inspired by the fried calzones that Leo’s mother used to make, will be taken to the grave.

“Either to the grave, or until I’m ready to open up shop somewhere else,” Louie says. “There’s a possibility I just might do it.”

(Ok. Who’s up for scouting out a back room with a deep fryer and a table?)

A “reincarnated” Joe’s S_perette would make Henry Weingartner, a 3rd grader at P.S. 58, very happy. 

“My family always gets sandwiches from Joe’s before we go on long car trips,” Henry says. “The guy who works there – I don’t know his name – but he always gets my sandwich right. Bologna and tomato on a roll.” 

Henry’s father, Eric Weingartner, says that it was “places like Joe’s” that sold him on the neighborhood when he moved his family from the city to Carroll Gardens seven years ago.

“Joe’s had character, and it was run by characters,” says Eric. “They had the best rice balls ever, and my mortadella and provolone was always perfect. A classic hole-in-the-wall serving only the best - they will be missed.” 

Yes, nothing is sadder than watching another old door turn its lock.    

But local photographer and Carroll Gardens native, and this writer's brother, Max Flatow, 26, is trying to look on the bright side. 

“Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise,” he quips. “One less heart-attack inducing snack to obsess over, I think, is a good thing.” 

This coming from a guy who, at a dinner party a few months ago, surprised guests with a spinach and arugula salad that was excitingly “topped with rice balls.”

However you choose to look at it, Joe’s S_perette will surely go down in history as one of the most prized stores the neighborhood has ever known.


We are missing them, but Joe’s will (always) be missing U.


Joe's S_perette

349 Smith Street, Brooklyn NY

Photo by Max Flatow

Ferdinando’s Focacceria Ristorante

The best way to discover something special is by accident. 

Not too long ago, on a vacation in Sicily, my boyfriend and I were weaving through the tight, tucked away alleys of Palermo when we happened upon the Vucciria – an open-air marketplace, over 700 years old, right in the city’s center. 

We strolled past merchants crowding housewares onto rickety card tables, their backs up against crumbling walls and parked Vespas; past the bakers balancing aluminum trays of biscotti regina atop milk crates and shaky boards. We watched men in white aprons and coppola caps weigh clear-eyed cuts of fish, stopping frequently to pour water over their freshest catch, the cobblestones dark, wet and shining in the sun. We bought jars of pesto di pisatacchi tied with checkered ribbon, and skinny bottles of salty capers. We leafed through baskets of dried herbs, and dipped slotted, metal spoons into olive bins. We touched tomatoes and held bulbous eggplant and chili pepper bouquets with two hands. We pointed at bloody meat dangling under fluorescent light. 

And then we met a vendor named Rocky. Rocky stood alone behind a three-wheeled street cart in a spacious piazza off the heart of the market. He pushed and scraped at a fatty vat of oily, piping hot meat, patting it down into a soft semolina bun, finishing it off with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkling of shredded caciocavallo cheese. My friend and I circled him for a bit watching his technique, but mostly wondering what the sandwich was, and if we were looking lunch in the eye.

Rocky made the decision for us, and before we knew it, we were looking lunch “in the spleen” as we nervously bit into what Sicilians call “pane ca’meusa” – their beloved calf’s spleen sandwich. Brave souls we were; best accident by far. 

Did Brooklyn know about this sandwich? 


Back home in Carroll Gardens, it came as no surprise to learn that Ferdinando’s Focacceria Ristorante – our neighborhood’s vestige of traditional Sicilian food - boasted “vastedda” (the old Sicilian word for pane ca’meusa) on its menu. But I wondered: Could it rival Rocky’s?


Oh, yes. Ferdinando’s spleen sandwich is delicious and, like many other items served here, very special. The organs, soft and juicy, are layered with ricotta and grated pecorino cheese (the two ingredients that turn a staple into a “special”), baked, and then piled onto homemade focaccia. There is nothing shy about this sandwich. Vastedda knows what vastedda is.

Chef-owner Francesco Buffa, a former policeman and judo instructor, who sold his sports car, moved from Rome to Brooklyn, only to fall in love with Ferdinando Siaramataro’s sole daughter back in the 70s, takes tremendous pride in the preparation of his father-in-law’s authentic Sicilian specialties. When the focacceria’s doors opened in 1904, it was simply a luncheonette for longshoremen, and just three items were offered: panelle, potato croquettes and vastedda.

In 1975, just one month after Francesco married into the family, Ferdinando passed away. While it remained important to Francesco to keep the original menu intact, he did want to offer “more sophisticated” plates. Dishes like “pasta con sarde,” “antipasto rustico,” “trippa” and “linguini con seppia” turned a lunchtime focacceria into a popular dinnertime ristorante. 

“I didn’t want to put fettucine alfredo or carbonara on there. That’s more northern Italy,” says Francesco, who was born in the Sicilian town of Carini, right outside of Palermo. “In Sicilian food, we don’t use much butter or milk. We like the olive oil and garlic.”

“Pasta con sarde is number 1 for me,” he says. “It’s a beautiful dish, but you gotta get used to it. First you say ‘oh, it’s not for me’ but if you taste a little bit, then a little bit, you say ‘wow, what a dish.’ Everything here you just gotta fall in love with.” 

Over the years, many customers have fallen in love with the pork chop pizzaiola - a secret dish that doesn’t even grace the menu. Debbie, one of the waitresses, has been describing it the same way for five years. 

“I say to people ‘it’s so tender, you can eat it with a fork.’ And then I take their knives away. As soon as they start eating, they call me over. ‘I didn’t think you were serious!’ they say. And I tell them ‘I’d never use that line if I wasn’t serious.’”     

Fabio, 35, grew up in Carroll Gardens and has been eating at Ferdinando’s since he was a kid.

“I get the rice ball special, grilled eggplant and cold fish salad,” he lists quickly. “And that’s just to start.” 

The rice ball special is one of the two most popular dishes at Ferdinando’s. A lightly fried ball of rice that gets dredged in breadcrumbs, filled with ground beef, peas, sauce and mozzarella, then topped with ricotta and covered in a beautiful russet-colored tomato sauce and parmesan cheese. You will be sad to see it go when you’re done and reaching for napkins. 

“We make them by hand,” Francesco says. “These aren’t the rice balls you see in the pizzerias. Those taste like baseball.”

Next up is the panelle special. Deep-fried and thinly sliced chickpea-flour fritters that get placed on a soft homemade bun and, of course, topped with that silky-smooth ricotta. 

Michael Brown, 29, a Ferdinando’s regular, likes to describe panelle as “Sicilian falafel.” Growing up with a Sicilian mother and an American father, panelles were treats his mother would bring home when his father wasn’t around. “I also remember the first time I realized you could get the panelles without the ‘special,’ says Michael. “So salty, so simple - it was a shock to my world.”

Once labeled “the food of poor people,” Ferdinando’s continues to play a big part in the revitalization of Sicilian cuisine. 

“The panelle is specialty now. It’s a very unique specialty. And if you want it, you have to appreciate it. Because this is what we do,” Francesco says.

Francesco would love for his sons - Christian, Francesco and David – to take over the business. The youngest, David, just graduated from St. John’s University with a degree in finance, and has been working at the restaurant on weekends.  

“I don’t wanna push nobody because they’re still young,” he says. “When you come here, you gotta sacrifice yourself. Kids today, they only wanna work 40 hours, that’s it.” 

David is up for the challenge, he says it to me point-blank. Then he asks if I’ve ever had a Manhattan Special on tap. Nope. He drops ice cubes into a glass, runs it under the fountain, watches my face as I take that first gulp. 

“So vintage, right?” he asks, his eyes lighting up. 

“Look, it’s family tradition. Sicilian food is rare, so you gotta have pride in it. My brothers and I – we’re gonna take it over for sure.”

Blame it on the magic of a Manhattan Special, but I believe David Buffa. 


If I could send you all to Palermo to meet Rocky at the Vucciria Market for a 3-euro pane ca’meusa, believe me, I would. But I think I’ll settle for the more practical option and send you all to Ferdinando’s for a little taste of Palermo in Carroll Gardens.

Francesco Buffa

151 Union Street, Brooklyn NY

Photos by Max Flatow

D'Amico Foods

When my grandfather was alive, his daily morning ritual always began with a McDonald’s cup of coffee. I think he was up as early as 5:30 a.m. for it. He’d fix his belt, grab the newspaper, pack his cigarettes and be out the door. He claimed the coffee at McDonald’s was great. And as early-rising 8-year-olds, my brother, cousin and I used to love sleeping over because we knew we’d get a trip to the establishment that was usually reserved for the bathroom break on a long car ride. 

Yes, we’d get sticky eating our hotcakes with syrup and margarine, and grandpa would get his caffeine on. For years, he raved about the taste. My parents, lifelong drinkers of D’Amico’s French-Roast and nothing but, bit their tongues.   

Truth is, there will always be people in this world that are happy with their “decent, moderately strong” paper cups of coffee. 

Coffee is coffee, they’ll say.

[Groan] No, coffee is not coffee. Finding that great roaster of beans is just as important as finding that great butcher of meat. It’s best when it’s done just right.  Like a butcher preparing a fine rib roast, there’s a way to cut it so that you’re bringing it home at its most tender and delectable. The same goes for coffee beans.

No one likes a burnt bean.

At least, I don’t.   


Frank D’Amico may not be my granddaddy, but he is definitely the granddaddy of the most famous coffee beans in Carroll Gardens. Not to mention all of the imported olive oils, pesto, pastas, canned goods, meats, cheeses, sauces, crackers and jellies that bedeck this traditional, classic shop.


D’Amico Foods is a third generation family business that’s been luring customers in for over 60 years. Frank’s father, Emanuele D’Amico - a Palermitan who jumped ship to Brooklyn around 1925 – was a self-taught man who worked all sorts of jobs.  From longshoreman to laundry delivery, Emanuele searched for stable jobs that could support his family of five. In 1948, with an old-fashioned coffee roaster machine and your standard grocery items lining wood shelves, D’Amico began renting the brownstone storefront at 309 Court Street. That romantic bouquet of coffee we smell today - of beans being ground - likely spilled onto the street as if someone were pushing it out then, too. The whir of the roaster, the clang of the scooper… a pedestrian’s senses couldn’t help but heighten with each passing stroll. 

Joanny D’Amico, who is married to Frank’s son, Francis, and runs the business with him today, recalls the D’Amico scent. 

“I used to live on Wyckoff Street. On Saturdays, in the warm weather, we had our windows open, and so we got that smell of coffee,” says Joanny. “I grew up with this smell!”

“When I was growing up, we ate a lot of bread,” Frank, 83, pipes in. “Hardly any meats because it was very expensive. We used to ask the butcher for his bones so we could make soup.”

“We had a small apartment on Union between Clinton and Court,” he continues. “My mother had one of those big water sinks in the basement. That’s where the dishes got washed. And the clothes. And me and my two sisters – “

Joanny interrupts him, shaking her head. 

“I don’t believe you guys all got washed in the same water, Frank.”

“You and my sister!” says Frank. He turns to me. “They live an illusion.”

While Frank is eager to divulge the back-stories of the life and times of Italian immigrants during the Great Depression, Joanny and Francis are more concerned with keeping him focused on the store. 

I like the stories though so I let Frank talk. 

“I used to work in the city as a delivery guy, delivering packages for department stores like Bloomingdales and Macy’s. Expensive stuff. That was the only time I ever got fired,” Frank admits. “I was punching in too late. They had to let me go. That was sad.”

“What’s that got to do with the store?” says Joanny. Her tone is equal parts love and exasperation. 

“Dad, it’s about D’Amico’s… not your life. Sylvie wants to know about the store,” says Francis.

Frank stares at them both. He appears to be considering it.  

“No, no. Stories first.”

Francis sighs.

“God bless you, Dad.”


Today, D’Amico runs on the same principles it ran on 60 years ago: high quality and dedicated service. 

Never say no to a customer is Frank’s long-standing philosophy. Because if you can do it, do it. Never turn them away. Always find a way to help them. 

“Once, years ago, a lady was pregnant. I had to take her to the hospital. They called me! I don’t know why they called me,” Frank says with a shrug.

Francis knows why though.

“We always told everyone who comes in – new people who move in – if you need something, you can come here. We can be your emergency contact. People leave their keys here, people leave things for other people to pick up. Because we have a mail order and a UPS pick-up, people know they can leave a package with us to ship. And that’s old time mom-and-pop for you. We never changed that.”

When Francis officially took over the business in 1997, he really pushed for the development of the D’Amico website. He knew that as the area began to change, the business had to change with it. Little by little, the blends of coffee grew. More imported food items stocked the shelves. A cappuccino and espresso bar was installed in the back. Keeping the business alive was all about introducing the new.  In fact, it was Frank’s idea to promote the area years ago by naming some of the blends after the neighborhoods. 

“The Brownstone Collection” consisted of 3 blends:  Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill and Park Slope. During the 90s came the Red Hook blend (seeing as it was the “up and coming” area) and sure enough that blend became the store’s bestseller. Today in the store, practically spilling out of their burlap sacks, you have over 100 different blends to choose from.

Three years ago, on top of D’Amico’s successful mail-order business, Francis introduced D’Amico Coffee Service so that offices, cafes and restaurants could supply their employees, clients and customers with not just the best coffee, but the best coffee accoutrements as well. (If you’re out to dinner one night, let it be known that neighborhood restaurants such as Chestnut, Diego, Le Petit Café, Sweet Melissa, Strong Place and Ted and Honey all have D’Amico coffee on their menus.)


So what do the D’Amicos drink?

“I like Copenhagen,” says Frank. “I drink three cups during the day.”

Francis is quick to correct him.  

"Five, Dad."


“I prefer Jamaican Blue Mountain,” says Francis. “I don’t like the 100 percent, but we make a style that tastes similar to it, and I like that.”

“When I’m here at the store, I drink White Christmas,” says Joanny. “But I’d say Vienna’s my all-around favorite.”


You know what? Here’s to everyone having a preference. 

Yes, even my McDonald’s-loving grandfather.

Francis, Joanny, and Frank D'Amico

309 Court Street, Brooklyn NY

Photos by Max Flatow 

Chic Elegance

On the day before his 30th birthday, Anthony Cavagnuolo, 62, opened up Chic, a new hairstyling salon on the corner of Court and Degraw streets. 

Neighborhood guys walked by and did double takes. 

“Hey, Ant! You cut hair?” they yelled from outside.

“Yeah, I cut hair!” he yelled right back.



Anthony had spent twelve years working in the back room of an office on Wall Street, and although it was a job that paid the bills, it just wasn’t “cutting it.”

“Money and desperation led me to the profession,” Anthony admits. “But it was good because it kept me on the straight and narrow.” 

Anthony’s mother was the one who told him of the available space at 306 Court Street. He borrowed five thousand dollars from one friend, five thousand dollars from another, and soon enough was making monthly rent payments of two hundred and seventy five dollars.

How the hell am I gonna pay this back? was his first thought.


Chic turned into a neighborhood hotspot. In 1983, he made more money cutting hair than he makes today. And that was when the haircuts cost you less than ten dollars. 


Across the street, Anthony’s girlfriend (now, wife!), Nancy Cusumano, owned Elegant Directions – a full-service nail, tan and wax salon. 

“I used to do her hair,” Anthony says. “She was a neighborhood girl. She grew up next door, in the apartment above D’Amico’s.”

But in 1986, when Nancy’s friend and co-owner pulled out of the business for monetary reasons, Anthony took over the share, and moved Chic in with Elegant Directions. 

Hello, Chic Elegance. 

They were together for fourteen years before they married.  

“When my oldest daughter got pregnant, Nancy said to me, ‘Ant, we’re gonna have grandchildren now… we should get married, maybe.’” 

He flashes a smile.     

“So I got us a credit card, and we had five hundred people at our wedding. At the Puck Building in the city. Great party.”

Nancy’s mother - cute, little Rose Cusumano - saunters over to Anthony.        

“Excuse me, but I need to interrupt you because I have to kiss my son-in-law.”


Born into a Neapolitan family of five, Anthony was a “street kid,” growing up and playing ball right here in Carroll Gardens.

He went to elementary school at Sacred Heart St. Stephens on Cheever Place (now, condos), and was one of the first high school students at Park Slope’s Bishop Ford Central Catholic High School when it opened in 1962. 

“Not many street kids live here anymore, but this is still the neighborhood,” Anthony says with a clap of his hands. “I still hang with the guys I played football with when I was a teenager.”

On Saturdays, while Anthony is snipping, straightening and schmoozing at the salon, “the guys” are down at the Raleigh Post, an American Legion club on Third Avenue and 9th Street, playing cards, drinking at the bar and betting on horse racing and college games. 

“That’s the neighborhood we were brought up in. That’s what we do,” he says.   

According to Anthony, our neighborhood is the only “real neighborhood” left.

I ask him to define “neighborhood.” 

“People knowing people, people saying hello to people,” he says without hesitation. “The stores don’t define a neighborhood. The people do.”

And that’s the kind of neighborhood Anthony grew up in. 

The Cavagnuolo Family lived together in a house on First Place – a house that his older sister still lives in today. Her son, Anthony’s nephew, Mark Iacono, is the owner of Lucali on Henry and Carroll streets. 

“He just moved back to the neighborhood. There wasn’t any room for him in the First Place house, so he’s renting up the block,” Anthony says. “He’s got the #2 pizza in America, you know.”

(Oh, I know.)

On top of hairdressing, fifteen years ago, he opened up a sports bar called Courtside Café with four of his nephews.  Anthony was styling by day, and bartending by night. That bar is now Abilene on the corner of Court Street and 4th Place.

“We built that place from scratch,” Anthony says, proudly. 

A familiar woman interrupts us. 

“Can I just ask him a question? What do you pay for an apple turnover?” she says.

“I have no idea,” Anthony replies.

“I just bought eight of them,” she says. “I made your wife take them. Apple strudel.  Eight of them for seven dollars.”

“Costco?” Anthony asks.

She nods, and he turns to me.   

“See what happens here? It’s all about the food in this place. All day long.”


Anyone who walks through Anthony’s doors knows that the salon is more than just a salon. Like the Raleigh Post, it’s a sort of clubhouse for old friends. A casual meeting place where the people are fun, the stories are good and the food is shared.  There’s a constant stream of people, all popping their heads in to say hello on any given day.

You’d think there was a party going on behind these old doors. 

“People think we’re busy with haircuts, but no, we’re busy with our friends!” Anthony laughs.

It’s the friendships that are truly invaluable here. When Court Street fixture, Geraldine Bianchi, passed away in 2008, her nephew welded a bench in her honor, and asked to have it stationed outside the salon. 

"She was a character, she’s still a character,” Anthony says with a smile and an upward glance. “Geraldine took care of this whole block, whether you wanted her to take care of it or not. If my alarm went off in the middle of the night, she was out there.  She was a tough girl, but she had a heart of gold. A true friend of the salon.”

And, of course, there are no better friends than the hairstylists.

“My girls are what make this salon,” Anthony says.  “Ann Marie’s been with me 29 years. Lu’s been here 11 years. Jeannie’s been with me since day 1. They were all babies when they started. They’re family now. When one hurts, we all hurt.”

I caught Jeannie in the salon recently. She left the neighborhood fifteen years ago, but is committed to making the commute from Manalapan, New Jersey every other Saturday to come and cut hair. 

The salon “is a piece of home, and I can’t give it up,” she says, unabashedly. 

I spy Joan D’Amico, of D’Amico’s next door, sitting in the window, talking with a friend, eating some food. 

“I love it here - this is where I come to eat,” she says between bites. “I come here for the peace and quiet from my own store. Yeah, it’s crazy here but at least it’s not my store’s craziness.” 

(Sounds like an invitation to go behind D’Amico’s old doors …)


With spring in the air, Anthony’s doors will literally be wide open. They are, after all, his best advertisement. Over the hum of the hairdryers, don’t be afraid to stick your head in and say “Hello.”

That’s what we neighborhood people are all about. And don’t you forget it.

Anthony Cavagnuolo

311 Court Street, Brooklyn NY

Photos by Max Flatow

Court Pastry Shop

Summer, 1989.

The sky is the color of sherbet, boys are throwing baseballs and the ice cream truck can only be a few blocks away because already I’m humming along to Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” But forget the truck. I’m sitting on my Sackett Street stoop anxiously waiting for Dad to come home from work. Mom says that when Dad gets home, we can get ices. Where is he?

For me, Court Pastry wasn’t the “cookie store” growing up — it was the “ice place.”  Rarely did my family even go inside! No, we were the Italian ice junkies. That first lick off the top of a chocolate ice stimulated so much pleasure in my brain… that I always forgot that I liked the lemon ice, too. (Tip: combine them.)


Whether you’re new to the neighborhood or not, chances are you’ve been to Court Pastry. Let me rephrase that. Chances are you’ve smelled Court Pastry. It only takes one customer to swing that door open. And once that’s done, you have to forgive yourself. It’s okay that you’re just another victim held hostage to an aroma so nutty and so sweet that you’re forced to stop what you’re doing and immediately brainstorm an excuse as to why you’re about to buy a pound and a half of cookies.  (Um, shouldn’t everyone celebrate President’s Day with a pound and a half of cookies? No?)



Around 8 p.m. on an icy weekday night, I am following co-owner, Gasper Zerilli, 62, to the back of his shop, and into the kitchen. Steve Miller Band is playing loudly on the radio, but Zerilli does not turn it down. Instead, he does a quick wipe of his hands down the front of his flour-dusted apron and gets right into it.

“My father, Salvatore Zerilli, was born in this country in 1917. In 1919, his parents died from the Spanish influenza. He had a sister who was eleven, and they both got sent back to Italy to get raised because they had no family here. So they went back to Marsala, Sicily, and my father grew up with one grandmother and my aunt grew up with another grandmother. They never really came into contact. They never really associated while they were young.”

“He came back to this country when he was fifteen,” Gasper continues. “His uncle called him over.”

(I’m confused. Didn’t he say there was no family here?)

“They called him ‘uncle’ but he wasn’t really…” 

(Ah. Say no more.)

“So his uncle’s name was Carmelo, and he owned a pastry shop on Columbia Street.  When he got to the shop, he made friends with one of the kids who used to work there. This kid taught him English, taught him how to get around, taught him how to work. That was the starting point for my father.”

And we all start somewhere.

Over the next fifteen years, Salvatore took jobs in both Brooklyn and Manhattan, trying his hand at a variety of bakeries, trying his hand at a variety of baking speeds. It was after working for Carmelo that he took a job with a man named Mr. Spina.  Mr. Spina’s business was in wholesale biscuits. (Think Stella D’oro, but before Stella D’oro.)

“When you work in wholesale, it’s a different story,” Gasper explains. “Most pastry shops are taking their time, going slow, making everything perfect. But when you work wholesale, in order to make money, you gotta produce, you gotta go fast.”

Surely, a valuable skill in the baking business, but what Salvatore really wanted to do was master the pastries a baker’s “uncle” could be proud of. So he went to work for an older man named Mr. DeBella who owned a pastry shop on Avenue U and West 5th Street in Gravesend, Brooklyn. 

“How do you say… when you make something and you see all your own work and everything is done by you so whatever you sell, it’s yours, all yours, and so you have an appreciation for the stuff?” 

I’d call that self-satisfaction.

And it makes a difference. In fact, it inspires you to get in touch with your friend, Anthony Caraciolla, during the summer of 1948, and open up your own shop in Cobble Hill. 

“Tony and my father – they were partners for thirty-two years. In 1975, a few years before Tony retired, I became a partner. Three partners. And then Tony retired in ’81 and my brother, Vincent, took his place.”

Today, in the back, we have Gasper, Vincent, two bakers and a kid who comes in on weekends. In the front? Girls. 

“So the recipes are pretty much the same. I may have added some pies and cheesecake to the mix, but the cannolis are the same, the sfogliatelles are the same,” Gasper says.


All of a sudden, it’s hard to concentrate.

I’m glad the conversation began in the kitchen because now we’re up front and I’m distracted. Seven-layer cookies, stacked like adorable, little birthday presents. Deep almond and apricot flavors accentuated by a pencil-thin layer of chocolate on top and bottom (obviously my favorite). Macaroons. Cuccidati. Rococo. Chocolate things. Can I be another girl that works here? Please?

“See these?” Gasper points to cookies covered in pine nuts. “These are gold. Spanish pignolis. $25/lb. Just for the nuts!” 

But you don’t have to be nuts to know that if you use the best materials, you get the best results. That’s just how Court Pastry rolls. I’ve never been surprised to see a line of customers snaking around the shop, all waiting to “get a box.”

The wall is lined with prices. $11/lb for the mixed cookies/sugar free cookies; $6.50/lb for the regina and twist cookies; $2.25/pastry; $2.75/sfogliatelle. If you want 21 pastries, the price is up there.

And for good reason. Trust me, your brain can’t compute math when you’re at Court Pastry.

Gasper Zerilli

298 Court Street, Brooklyn NY

Photos by Max Flatow