If you don’t go, you don’t know.
I’m embarrassed to say that it took me close to twenty-five years before walking into Joe’s Superette on Smith Street for the first time. Carroll Gardens had always been a neighborhood peppered with Italian groceries, and I guess I assumed that Joe’s was just another one of those shops where you could pick up your can of beans or a package of spaghetti on your way home. And it is - so feel free to do just that - but I’m going to venture to say that beans and spaghetti are not what’s keeping Owner Leo Coladonato in business.
So there’s this thing called a rice ball. These are why you go to Joe’s.
In the tiny kitchen towards the back of his dusty store, Leo has been making his signature golf-sized rice balls every day since 1976. “As you can see,” he says, and pats his stomach, “I’ve been snacking on them since then as well.” You can’t blame him. They are the best, most under-publicized rice balls around and thanks to his regular customers (“Gimme a dozen prosciutto!” they bark), he manages to sell about a hundred a day to walk-ins while the bigger orders (think Superbowl platters) are delivered around the city.
“When I started making them, everyone was doing the gigantic ones… so I did miniatures,” Leo says. Served hot from the fryer and wrapped in a french fry paper tray, you’ve got three kinds of gooey goodness to choose from: arancine (chopped meat and tomato sauce), suppli (rice and mozzarella croquette), and the infamous prosciutto and ricotta - a recipe inspired by the calzones his mother used to make as a kid. The calzones were an Italian specialty of Mola di Bari in Apulia where he was born. “It’s not really prosciutto,” he admits. “It’s boiled ham. But in Italian, ham is called prosciutto… so I say prosciutto. It sounds nicer than ham ball.” For 65 cents a piece, I’ll let Leo call it whatever he wants.
Behind the counter, scotch-taped photographs of customers and customers’ kids decorate his deli case window (as does a signed picture of Bensonhurst native, Steve Schirripa, the actor who played “Bobby Baccalierri” on The Sopranos). “I’ve been coming here my whole life,” one guy tells me after putting his order in. (“Mix ‘em up!” I hear him say). “I used to live in the neighborhood with my family… but it got too expensive and we had to leave. Now I’m in Staten Island. You can’t stop me from making the trip for these rice balls, though. No one makes ‘em better.”
JOE’S S_PERETTE (look for the missing “U” on the sign because it’s not getting replaced anytime soon…) is open 7 days a week, excluding Christmas and New Years.
349 Smith Street, Brooklyn NY
Photo by Max Flatow