by Rachel Khona
As I bit into the creamy, sweet cannoli, pieces of flaky crust breaking off and crumbling down my chin, I understood why Fortunato Brothers is still the most excellent Italian bakery in Williamsburg. No gimmicks, no frou-frou cupcakes, no reinventing great-grandma’s recipe. Fortunato’s isn’t trying to be retro. They ARE retro.
Surprised? Don’t be. If you thought Williamsburg was just where skinny-jeans went to die, think again. Away from the tattooed and pierced throngs of Bedford, east Williamsburg still retains much of its Italian-American flavor. Even decades after Joseph “Donnie Brasco” Pistone and Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano no longer roam the streets of east Williamsburg, old-world Italia is still very much a part of the area. Minus the mobsters. Kind of.
Fortunato’s still retains that feel with its glossy black chairs and green and white tiled floors. Shouts in Italian still pepper the air, while old paisanos play chess. Yes, you will still see the occasional mohawked newbie wander through, but Fortunato’s hasn’t lost sight of its Italian roots. In fact, owner Biago Fortunato is just one of the many Italian-Americans in Williamsburg continuing to keep the spirit of Italy alive in an ever-changing neighborhood.
Italians first start immigrating to East Williamsburg in the latter half of the 19th century, continuing until the 1970s, when the poor economic conditions in southern Italy forced many to leave their homeland for greener pastures in America. Having left most of their life in Italy behind, food, culture, and religion became ways to remember Italy. Before you could say cannoli, the new immigrants were setting up shop, bringing to life the Naples-derived celebration Festa dei Gigli, (Festival of Lillies) and creating societies like the San Cono Society on Ainslie Street. The streets of Withers, Frost, Manhattan, Skillman, and Graham became the main hub for Italian-Americans in Williamsburg. In fact, Graham Avenue is still a main drag of sorts for the Italian-American community of Williamsburg, its nickname being “Via Vespucci”.
But back to the cannolis.
In 1976 when Fortunato’s was established by Biago’s father Mario, on an unassuming corner of Manhattan Avenue and Devoe Street, he had little idea that over the years Fortunato Brothers would become one of the most beloved Italian bakeries in the hood and possibly in all of NYC.
“Everything is made fresh here from scratch. Besides flour, sugar and eggs, of course,” Biago says, which might have a lot to do with why the bakery is still so popular all these years later. “We make wedding cakes, lobster tails, éclairs, swans, cheesecake, marzipan; you know, a little bit of everything.” Fortunato’s also serves up endless flavors of gelato including favorites like pistachio and tiramisu with ingredients often flown in from the motherland itself. Though the Fortunato family hails from Naples, their sweet treats are universally Italian.
These days the Italian-American population is dying out, as the younger generation moves to Queens, Manhattan, Long Island, and New Jersey. Fortunately, keeping the flavor of Italy alive isn’t too hard for the first-generation, Italian-speaking Biago. But how will future generations of Italian-Americans in the burg keep tradition alive? “The neighborhood has changed a lot. A lot of hipsters came in, which doesn’t bother me. But I still have my old customers. So I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I was raised a certain way. So I guess I’ll pass that onto my kids. When I have them.”
But all is not lost. If you want to sample the best that Italy has to offer there are plenty of places to indulge your palette. Many of the restaurants and shops are still run by first and second generation Italians who take great pride in their heritage. Take Savino’s Quality Pasta for example.
Says owner Cono Savino, “We as a family wanted to do something we knew we would be good at, and we love food. So we decided to open a fresh pasta shop. All the basic recipes were based off both of my grandmothers’ recipes.” Customer faves include their homemade ravioli which come in a variety of flavors including goat cheese, pumpkin, artichoke, and roasted red pepper.
After you pick up your pasta, you can head over to Napoli’s, where you can get the perfect Italian bread to complement your pasta. Foccacias, ciabattas, and classic country bread, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, are just the ticket for a serious carb fix. Over at Caffe Capri, go back in time where they’ve been doling out their famous iced coffee since 1974. Owners Sarah Devita and Joseph Rinaldi had the genius idea of feeding their coffee through a gelato machine, resulting in the perfect iced coffee. Except that there’s no ice, so the beverage is just as potent as it was before.
Jonseing for a slice? Look no further than Carmine’s, a family-run operation since 1979. Now if you’re looking for seriously substantial Italian fare, get ready to loosen your belt and make the rounds. From Bamonte’s, (open since 1900!) to La Locanda, (1965) to Frost (1959), there’s no shortage of clams casino, eggplant rollatini, penne alla vodka, chicken parm and the like.
And if you’re searching for mobsters, yes they’re still here; supposedly. But you would be better off looking for the perfect marinara than a mafia don. In the immortal words of Peter Clemenza in The Godfather, “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”