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.”
“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.
“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