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.
349 Smith Street, Brooklyn NY
Photo by Max Flatow