Today we stop by Brancaccio’s Food Shop in Windsor Terrace, where Joseph Brancaccio has been serving up what locals swear is some of the borough’s best Italian food since opening three years ago.
OK Joe, what’s good? What should we get?
A lot of people like our chicken. Before I opened this place up I was going to sell my rotisserie. I didn’t think it was going to work in here. Now I sell more chicken than anything else. I get phone calls at seven o’clock in the morning to save roasted chicken for people.
Today I’m doing a different kind of chicken. A broiled chicken with escarole and fregola sarda.
Tell us about it.
What I do is I try to remember dishes the way my grandmother would make them for me when I was seven years old. Either of my grandmothers. I try to remember what they tasted like, what they looked like, smelled like, and I try to recreate them. I’m looking for those smells, those flavors I grew up with. The mission is to get me back to seven years old. To get me back to that place.
I’m from an Italian family. All the women in my family have always been very good cooks. I’m better than all of them now. [laughter.]
Do you tell them that?
Oh yeah. My mother knows it. The others aren’t so sure.
So this chicken dish is a little different from what I usually do. I tend to cook on the sweet side. My meatballs have pine nuts and raisins, or my eggplant caponata…I tend to cook sweet because that’s the way I grew up. It’s what I remember. That’s how I cook. That’s how we do it. It’s been working really well.
The people I’ve worked for in the past – if I said I want to put pine nuts and raisins in meatballs? They would just squash it. They’d all say, “No. It’ll never fly. No one wants pine nuts and raisins in meat balls.” The bottom line is, it does work. It’s good. What’s old is new.
This is one of the few dishes I do that’s not a little sweet, but it’s a dish I ate all the time when I was a kid. It’s broiled chicken. I put bacon inside the skin and I brush it with garlic and thyme and extra virgin olive oil, squeeze a little lemon over it, and hit it with some red wine vinegar. That’s the part of this thing that really stands out – it’s really tangy because of the vinegar.
I do a lot of rotisserie chicken, but this chicken is broiled. The whole idea is to do what my grandmother did. She didn’t have a rotisserie. So it’s in the oven. Broiled chicken.
I serve the chicken with escarole and Fregola Sarda, which is a little pearl-shaped toasted pasta from Sardinia that’s sort of like Israeli couscous. This escarole is really nice. I picked it up this morning. To make it, you chop the escarole. You cook it in the pot with some double smoked bacon, Spanish onion, chicken stock, white wine, and the pasta. My mother’s husband makes the wine. He makes it every year. He brings it here, we cook with it. You let it all reduce. I give it a splash of red wine vinegar too, to carry over what’s going on with the chicken, to the escarole.
So you’ve got a lot happening here. You’ve got that smoky, salty bacon in both the escarole and the chicken, and you’ve got that chicken flavor in the escarole from the broth, you’ve got that tangy red wine vinegar. You want to carry those things across both parts of the dish, to get a little balance in there. Then you’ve got the bitterness of the escarole and the nuttiness of the Fregola Sarda. My grandmother would use a potato. They didn’t have access to Fregola Sarda.
This is a really oily dish. It’s oily, tangy, and garlicky. When I say oily, I mean really oily. I’m not going to dial it back because people think they don’t like something oily. The point of this dish? I want it exactly the way I remember it from when I was seven years old. I want it oily and tangy and garlicky. Exactly how I remember it. When we used to go to my grandma’s on Sunday’s for dinner? This is exactly how I remember it. Good food has to remind you of something. It’s got to remind you of a place or a time.
This dish, if it were served in a restaurant? You’d want to finish it with butter to bring the sauce together. The way I make it, it’s soupy. See? If you hit it with butter, it would become a beautiful sauce. But the whole idea here is that everything is really broken. The olive oil and the vinegar separate. The sauce isn’t together. My grandmother didn’t care about those things. She wasn’t some fancy French chef. This is how she would do it.
Here it is. Look. This looks like I remember it looking. When I’m making a dish like this, I play it out in my head. I imagine it. I travel back and imagine it. When I do that I never get it wrong. I feel it. I know it. I don’t have a recipe or anything but it always comes together in the end.
Is everything you cook inspired by those childhood memories?
No. This dish is. A lot of them are. But I mix it up. I’m thinking about doing lasagna or eggplant parmesan with chocolate in it. They would never do something like that. They’d think I was crazy.
So Joe, how did you end up here, doing this?
As a kid, in my grandparents’ house me and my sister used to play restaurant. They had what they called the summer kitchen. It was a second kitchen down in the basement. That’s where all the parties were held. From the time we were little kids we played restaurant down there.
I was always thinking about food. After college I started working at an Italian restaurant in the Village. Once I was there I was hooked. I went to culinary school after that. And the rest is history. I’ve never stopped cooking since.
After working for other people for a while, I thought, you know, I’d like to open my own place. My idea was always to do prepared foods. It was never going to be a restaurant. I had spent nine years at Agata and Valentina – a place on the Upper East Side – doing prepared food. I knew exactly how to do it and how I wanted to do it at my own place.
I was looking at places on Court Street. In Ditmas Park. Everywhere. There was a space right by where Court Street Grocers is now. Now there’s so much food there. Thank god I didn’t open there. I brought my contractor over to see it. He was like, “Joe, this doesn’t make any sense. There’s too much already here. You gotta find someplace where they need you.”
I was like, “OK, you’re right.”
We spent a lot of time looking for a location. It was frustrating. I live in Cobble Hill. Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens? Forget it. There are so many places there. Ditmas Park? Already popped. Brooklyn’s like Manhattan now. I was ready to give it up and take another chef job. We were looking at space after space and there was nothing.
One day, we hopped on the Gowanus Expressway and came out here. My mother grew up just a few blocks from here on East 3rd and 18th. My great grandparents had the house. My grandparents owned it after them. It was an extended family. My aunts and uncles all lived in the house.
So we drove past the house, then we were coming up East 3rd, and we see this strip of stores here, and there’s nothing going on. We look around the neighborhood…Nothing. No one doing food. For the first time, I think, “Wow. This could be something.”
So the next day I call my contractor and I say, “I might have found something. Meet me at this place.” He gets here first. He’s sitting outside. We hadn’t even gone inside yet and he says, “Joe. Take it. This is the place. This is gonna be something.”
I thought I was Christopher Columbus. I thought I’d discovered something. This new land where there were no people yet. I had no idea there were people here. I sat in my car to take a headcount. Nobody walked down the street. For a whole hour, nobody walked by. I’m thinking, this is going to be the next big thing. People are going to filter in here from Park Slope and Windsor Terrace and Ditmas Park. It’s going to start right now. When they come, they’ll need to eat, and I’ll be here, ready to feed them. Turns out, they were already here. I had no idea.
I was a little nervous about closing on the place because I still hadn’t seen a single person walk by. But we decided to do it. It just felt right. When we get in here to start working on the place, my contractor is like, “So, we gonna run a gas line in here? Take that wall out?” I said, “Before we start breaking down walls and filing for permits, let’s just get the place open and make sure someone is actually going to come in and buy something.”
So I’m getting ready to open the place. We’re in here, working. No one stops by. No one asks me what I’m doing. No one says hello. I’m a little worried. Finally I’m like, “OK, I’m ready.” I open up. All of a sudden there are all these people. It’s like they’re appearing out of nowhere. I’m like, “OK, I’m not ready.” I had no idea. They were here all along. There was just no reason for them to come by here because there was nothing here.
I’ve been here almost three years now. No advertising. Nothing. And everything is good. The neighborhood is perfect. It’s the best kind of place for a food business like this – young people, new families, artists, musicians. And lots of restaurant people. It’s nice to have other people in the food business eat your food. They appreciate it. The neighborhood is loaded with people who don’t want to cook every night. So I cook for them. That’s what we do here. We cook for people.
Brancaccio’s Food Shop is located at 3011 Fort Hamilton Parkway, between East 2nd and 3rd, in Windsor Terrace.
Photography by Heather Phelps-Lipton. All rights reserved.