The D train takes us all the way from Manhattan to 18th Ave, Bensonhurst, way out in Brooklyn…a trip of approximately 45 minutes. Why am I heading to Bensonhurst…..for the food of course!
I’ve been promised the best panini, amazing hero sandwiches, ravioli from an old Italian family recipe and cannoli as good as we had in Sicily, all with a bit of history mixed in.
It turns out that Bensonhurst was important in early New York history.
But I’m racing ahead!
We’re looking for the New Utrecht Reformed Church, where we are to meet Dom Gervasi, the founder of Made in Brooklyn Tours.
Born in Bensonhurst of Italian parents who came from Sicily and Calabria in 1956, Dom knows all there is to know about the area and more!
Proudly Dom tells us that it was an Italian, Giovanni da Verrazano who discovered New York in 1524 but it was the Dutch who first established a permanent settlement on Manhattan in 1624. This was all before New York’s first governor bought Manhattan from the Native Americans in 1626. But many of the early Dutch settlers were farmers so they headed to Brooklyn in search of large tracts of land to farm.They traded happily with the native Americans and in 1652 the Dutch West India Company bought the land from the Niyak Indians where Bensonhurst is today. The town of Utrecht was one of the six original towns of Brooklyn.
The English arrived in 1664 and ownership wavered between the two. The Dutch reclaimed the land in 1673 only to lose it to the English again in 1674. The British then occupied New York until George Washington entered New York in 1783.
The original Utrecht Reformed Church was built in 1677, rebuilt in 1700 on 64th St and because of the increasing numbers in the community, another had to built in 1828. Stones from the original building are included in the facade. It is here that we have met. At the front of the church stands the Liberty Pole. It was on this pole that the first flag in Utrecht was flown in 1783.
Dom continues the story as we wander around the streets….
In 1880, speculator James Lynch acquired many of the original farms in the area. He built 1000 villas, planted 5000 trees and calls the area Bensonhurst by the Sea. As land has been reclaimed, the sea disappeared, so the area became known as Bensonhurst.
The opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 helped people move from Manhattan to Brooklyn but it was with the building of the elevated rail line in 1917 that residential neighbourhoods started to form.
When inner city land prices in New York rose, the Jews moved out of Manhattan and into Bensonhurst bringing with them their businesses. They were then followed by the Italians. Today it is the Chinese from Fujon province, Central Americans, Mexicans and Central Europeans who are moving into the area but many of the original Italian businesses still remain.
As we walk around the neighbourhood, Dom recalls his days here. After World War 2, a new wave of Italian immigrants came. It was a quiet area, easy going but a bit tough, says Dom. The dress of the day said it all…tight jeans, disco fever shorts and the obligatory gold Jesus medallion hanging from the neck! His school mates now run some of the shops we visit and he knows the inside gossip on most of the families that still live here.
In recent times there have also been a few changes. Around 2005 the ‘maker movement’ became important. The businesses are reminiscent of 1900 approach where immigrants formed their own artisanal maker groups but different in that today the Mum and Dad inspired businesses would like to pass them on to their children.
Our first stop is Panino Rustico, a sandwich and panino shop that was based on the typical panino shops seen in Milan in the eighties. It’s a relatively new shop having been here for only 2 years but it has certainly established itself among the locals. The bread comes from Il Fornaretto, a small artisan bakery a few blocks away which we later see on our walk but first we have to try a few of the thirty four panini on offer. I couldn’t choose between the porchetta with smoked mozzarella and broccoli rabe, the proscuitto with fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil pesto, a vegetarian panini filled with roasted vegetables or their most popular sandwich, the grilled chicken with roasted peppers, arugula and basil pesto, so we all had a little of each! Delizioso!
From here we head to Lioni’s Italian Heroes, home of the Lioni Italian Hero sandwich…all thirteen inches of a deliciously filled roll. Why is it a called a hero sandwich? It seems that Clementine Paddleford, a NY Tribune food writer in the 1930’s, wrote that you had to be hero to eat one…and the name stuck!
As kids, the owner Paul Despirito and Dom used to work in the local bagel shop. They’ve grown up together and gone through the experience of being a kid in a tough neighbourhood. It’s great to see the easy banter between the two of them as we quiz Paul on the the ingredients of some of his 150 different varieties of sandwiches.
The sandwiches are all named after famous Italian-Americans! The Frank Sinatra is based on his love of salami, the Marisa Tomei on her favourite eggplant. The most popular hero is the Alyssa Milano with a chicken cutlet, proscuitto, mozzarella and basil pesto. We try the No 69, the Christopher Colombus, a roast beef, italian sausage, sopressato and fresh mozzarella sandwich with stuffed mushrooms together with a Manhattan Special, a carbonated coffee drink made in Brooklyn since the 1895. We also try their own smoked mozzarella that Paul smokes using with hickory wood.
“This is Brooklyn,” reflects Paul who says that Lioni’s gives you a taste of what it’s like to live here.
Pastosa Ravioli, another successful Italian-American family business is our next stop.
The stories as to how these shops started are interesting. In 1967, a company called Palio Cheese made ricotta filled ravioli. When a young man noticed that they weren’t using their best ricotta to fill the ravioli, he decided to make the ricotta himself to his own specifications. The store now makes thirty different types of ravioli. The best sellers are spinach, lobster and butternut pumpkin as well as tortellini, fresh pasta, sauces and soups. They also sell their own private grocery lines sourced from the best producers around the world. Now in its 3rd generation, Anthony Jnr and Joseph Ajello, continue the traditions of this neighbourhood store that has a loyal staff and a very loyal patronage.
Our final stop is heaven for the sweet tooths amongst us!
The result of a merger of two well known pastry houses, Villabate and Alba Pasticerria, Villabate Alba Pasticerria makes some of the most delicious Sicilian pastries, cakes, breads and gelato you will find outside of Sicily. At festival times, under the auspicious eyes of angels on the ceiling and religious statues on the cupboards, queues form all day long. It really does remind me of Sicily. The cannoli is definitely as good as I had there, so much so, it disappears before I can take a photo!
A perfect finish to a great tour!
If you are looking for an introduction to a different part of New York than you would otherwise see, I can recommend Dom’s Made in Brooklyn Tours. He is passionate about Brooklyn and loves nothing more than to introduce you to some fabulous neighbourhood areas and tastes. Tours of Williamsburg, Dumbo and Red Hook are also offered.
My thanks to Dom for my complimentary tour. As always, all opinions are my own. It would be really hard to write a bad review of these fabulous food stops in Bensonhurst!