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.
431 Court Street, Brooklyn NY
Photo by Max Flatow