Photographer Valery Rizzo shows us Carroll Gardens' true culinary soul, with a look inside a few of the neighborhood's old-school Italian bakeries, restaurants and specialty shops.
Carroll Gardens, once home to a working-class population of Italian immigrants who made a living on the bustling Red Hook waterfront, is better known today for its cluster of some of the borough’s hottest dining destinations. But the neighborhood’s true culinary soul rests in its collection of generations-old, family-run Italian bakeries, restaurants, and specialty food shops that have managed to survive despite the natural law that drives every New York City neighborhood’s inexorible demographic drift.
This month, Valery Rizzo takes us on a photo tour behind the scenes at Ferdinando’s Focacceria, home of the famed Sicilian panelle and spleen sandwiches since 1904; G. Esposito & Sons Jersey Pork Store, where they’ve been making Italian sausage from scratch since 1922; Court Pastry Shop, makers of the neighborhood’s finest sfogliatelle since 1948; Mazzola’s Bakery, which has been filling the air with the drool-inducing aroma of freshly-baked lard bread for eighty years; Caputo’s Fine Foods, stretchers of the now-iconic fresh mozzarella since 1973, and D’Amico Coffee, who’ve been roasting beans daily on Court Street since 1948.
Ferdinando's Focacceria, on Union Street between Columbia and Hicks streets, opened in 1904. A waitress holds several Panelle sandwiches, for which people have been known to travel from afar. Ferdinando's specializes in authentic Sicilian cuisine.
The family-owned Ferdinando's originally served the workers from the nearby docks. Owner Francesco Buffa expanded the space when he took over the business from his father-in-law, Ferdinando, in 1975.
A vintage black and white photograph of Francesco's father in-law Ferdinando Ciaramitaro standing in front of his Focacceria, hangs on the wall behind the front counter.
An Arancina special features a piping-hot baseball-sized rice ball filled with chopped meat, peas, and sauce, topped with ricotta and finished with tomato sauce and cheese. Martin Scorsese filmed a scene from The Departed here and a wall is dedicated to the many celebrities who have stopped by, including Sean Penn, Pierce Brosnan, Pavarotti, Norah Jones and Mike Piazza.
Frutti Di Mare, a seafood salad that's a Sicilian specialty, and Caponatina, and an eggplant salad with eggplant, olives, celery and capers in a light vinaigrette.
History covers the walls in black and white photographs, like this old photo of the Sicilian city of Palermo.
The Panelle sandwich is Ferdinando's signature dish - fluffy fried chick pea and flour patties, topped with ricotta and grated cheese and served inside a house-baked semolina roll. Regulars often pair it with hot potato croquettes and a Mahattan Special, a pure espresso soda that has been made in Brooklyn since 1895. Ferdinando's is the only place that has it on draft.
Like a scene from On the Waterfront, this old photo shows the smaller Ferdinando's in the mid-1900's, before its renovation in the 70's.
Owner Francesco Buffa with his son David. David holds a plate of Melenzane all Griglia or Grilled Eggplant. The restaurant is also known for its Vastedda - a Sicilian-style sandwich made with spleen, and its many homemade pasta dishes like Pasta con Sarde, made with sardines that Francesco cans himself, with wild fennel, pignoli, raisin and spices.
Edgar Vasquez cooks in the Focacceria's front kitchen. Almost everything is made from scratch, from toasting their own bread crumbs to stuffing their own sun-dried tomatoes.
G. Esposito & Sons Jersey Pork Store
G. Esposito & Sons Jersey Pork Store, on Court Street between Union and President, is a neighborhood institution. Just ask the endless stream of kids that stop to greet the giant pig standing outside the shop. Esposito's is called a Jersey Pork Store because when they opened in 1922, hogs from New Jersey were believed to offer the highest quality pork in the region.
Hanging homemade Sopressata, a dried salami, covers the shop's ceiling. Fresh Mozzarella is made daily, along with a variety of sausages, pepperoni, ricotta cheese, and prepared Italian specialty foods.
A photo on the wall of the current owners George and John Esposito's father Frank as a boy with their grandfather Giovanni, who came from Naples and opened the pork store in 1922. Every morning they begin to making their fresh sausage by grinding the pork, then adding a variety of herbs, cheese and seasonings to the meat.
After the sausage ingredients are mixed together with the pork, they're stuffed into casings several feet long. Here, co-owner John Esposito works his magic turning, twisting and tying the links by hand with precision and ease. Esposito's makes a wide variety of traditional Italian sausages, including hot, sweet, fennel, provolone & parsley, green pepper & onion and a chicken sausage.
When the sausages are finished they are spun into a circular bundle, patted down and a pin studded cork is used to poke tiny holes into the casing to let out excess air, which helps to keep them from bursting when the sausage is cooked. In the kitchen cleavers and knives hang on a wall together with religious pictures, crosses and family photos.
The countertop and display case are piled high with freshly-baked specialty breads, cheeses, and salami. Esposito's is also known for their Italian sandwiches, big enough for two whole meals. Brothers and co-owners George and John Esposito inside the shop.
Homemade fresh mozzarella salad, prosciutto balls, rice balls (arancini), eggplant rollatini, pork bruschetta and braciole are just a few of the many prepared dishes made at Esposito's.
House-made Chicken Rollatini made with muenster cheese, mozzarella, ham and butter, and Barbeque Spidini - a pork tenderloin sliced, pounded and stuffed with mozzarella, breadcrumbs, olive oil, garlic and parsley. John pounds the fat used to cover the shop's Roast Beef before roasting to keep it moist. (Yes, that's why it's so good.)
Santino Charriez holds a tray of broccoli rabe and sausage. Fresh coils of homemade sausage await their turn in the case.
George with George Jr. Esposito and Santino Charriez. In addition to sausage and prepared foods, the shop also sells a variety of Italian specialty items slikes olive oil, vinegar, tomatoes, imported cheeses, fresh pastas and more.
Court Pastry Shop
Court Pastry Shop, on Court Street between Douglass and Degraw, opened its doors in 1948. A tray of one of their many specialties, Sfogliatelle - a Neapolitan flaky clamshell-shaped pastry filled with an orange-flavored ricotta mixture.
Gasper Zerilli, co-owner with his brother Vincent, fills the Sfogliatelle dough with the ricotta mixture while an assistant baker prepares the next tray of pastry shapes to be filled. A constant flow of baking happens in the spacious kitchen, begining everyday at 7am.
Sponge cakes flavored with rum cool on a table and will later be used as a base for a variety of different cakes. Gasper prepares to place a tray of Sfogliatelle in the oven while another large log of rolled dough waits to be cut for the next batch.
A large pot of Sfogliatelle filling which contains ricotta, semolina, sugar, eggs, diced orange peel, cinnamon and vanilla. The large log of dough is stretched into an even longer roll, and then sliced into discs which are shaped to form pockets to hold the filling. Once stuffed, they're pinched into a shell before baking.
Gasper removes a perfect tray of finished Sfogliatelle from the oven. Trays of finished pastries are placed on racks to cool.
When done, the Sfogliatelle features a crunchy, flaky exterior that contrasts nicely with the orange-infused ricotta filling. They're meant to be served warm with a sprinkle of powdered sugar. Sfogliatelle means leaves or layers, because the pastry's texture resembles leaves stacked on top of each other.
Buttered Baba pastry cups wait to be filled. A Baba is another popular Neapolitan specialty - small yeast cakes saturated in rum liquor and sometimes filled with cream.
Cups resembling flowers, filled with pastry batter, wait to be baked. Tools of the trade: bakery utensils and attachments for the shop's industrial electric mixer hang on the wall.
Traditional Sicilian marzipan lambs are made for Easter. Here Gasper measures ingredients to make Anisette cookies. The 100 year old pink marble table they work on everyday was brought by boat from Italy in the 1890s and was in place when Gasper and Vincent's father Salvatore Zerilli bought the bakery 64 years ago.
Gasper pipes perfect rows of the Anisette batter by hand. After the batter is baked each loaf is cut into biscuits and put back in the oven to toast. They're traditionally enjoyed in the morning with coffee and have a slight licorice flavor.
The Zerilli Brothers, Vincent and Gasper, have been working in the bakery since they were kids. The bakery also specializes in cannoli, grain pies (pastiera), Italian cookies and various other Sicilian and Neapolitan specialties. Their lemon ices, served in summer, are touted to be the best in Brooklyn.
Mazzola's Bakery, at the corner of Union and Hicks, is an 80 year-old family-owned bakery specializing in straight-from-the-oven bread. The bakery is owned by Frank Caravello and his children Josephine, Frank Jr. and Anthony. Pictured are Josephine and Frank Sr., in the bakery. Baker Anthony Ilardi holds Mazzola's famed Lard Bread, which is baked with Genoa salami, aged provolone and black pepper.
For Easter, Mazzola's makes a traditional Italian Easter bread - a sweet dough with a hint of Anisette that's decorated with eggs. Mazzola's makes them in the shape of a basket, a large ring or in smaller individual-sized versions. The Caravello family also recently purchased the shop across the street, which is now Francesco's (named after their father Frank) a pizzeria and trattoria.
Caputo’s Fine Foods
Caputo's Fine Foods, back on Court between 3rd and 4th Place, is best known for their iconic fresh homemade Mozzarella, which they have been making since opening in 1973. Frank Caputo starts with chopped cheese curd, then adds boiling water to warm and soften the curd. He adds no salt because it hardens the otherwise delicate, creamy cheese. After softening, Frank stretches, pulls and squeezes the curd to form the Mozarella.
Here Frank forms what he calls a Scamorzza, which is the largest of the four sizes he makes. He also makes a 'Regular' size; Bocconcini, the smallest size; and the Ovaletti, is egg sized (Ova meaning egg in Italian.) Frank Caputo in the shop's kitchen, which is about to undergo a major renovation.
Caputo's makes the fresh mozzarella about every hour throughout the day. Frank says the cheese should be eaten fresh, at room temperature, within a couple of hours of being made. Once refrigerated, the cheese hardens. Caputo's also makes a wide variety of fresh homemade pastas and ravioli.
A painting of D'Amico Coffee, in business since 1948, adorns the shop's front window. D'Amico's, at the corner of Court Street and Degraw, roasts their coffee beans throughout the day in small batches, in a big red roaster which sits near the entrance.
150 pound sacks of recently-delivered raw coffee beans are stacked throughout the shop. Co-owner Joan D'Amico shows off the familiar-looking freshly-roasted brown beans next to unroasted beans, which are green. D'Amico carries a variety of Fair Trade Organic coffees and they supply restaurants, firehouses and bake shops throughout the borough.
D'Amico imports beans from Ethiopia, Costa Rica, Guatamala, Brazil, Columbia and many other coffee-producing regions. The shop uses a beautiful vintage scale to weigh the beans.
Joan and Frank D'Amico are the third generation owners. Frank's grandfather started the business. Joan and Frank cheerfully greet an endless stream of regulars by their first names all day long. They also offer their coffees and other products via mail order and wholesale.
Also on Court Street, near Sackett, Caputo's Bakery (no relation to Caputo's Fine Foods) opened in 1904, and still offers fresh breads, pastries, cakes, and cookies.
The Good Friday Procession
Members of Brooklyn's oldest Italian parish church, Sacred Hearts - St.Stephens Church, parade through the streets of Caroll Gardens every Good Friday. Traditional Italian hymns, an Italian funeral band, and a procession of neighborhood men, women and children re-enact the journey of Christ to his tomb, by candlelight.
All photos © Valery Rizzo. All rights reserved.
Valery Rizzo is a Park Slope-based photographer with a love of good food and all things Brooklyn. You can find more of her work on her website, and follow her food adventures on her photo blog, Eating Brooklyn.