From the “favorite places on planet earth” department…
Above: The potato croquettes at the Focacceria di Ferdinando in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn — a sine qua non of the classic Sicilian focacceria (see note on usage and meaning of the designation focacceria below).
Saturday morning in New York City found me and Tracie P on the F train to Carroll Gardens, where we had a date with one of my childhood friends (since our bar mitzvah days), Noah (the German professor as he is known on his wife’s blog) and his lovely wife, Melanie (whom we also adore), mother to the Cheese-Hater and author of the recently published Eating for Beginners.
Above: The arancino or rice ball, served in this instance as the rice ball “special.” The arancino is a rice ball stuffed with ground meet and cheese, dredged in breadcrumbs and then fried, and in this case, dressed with tomato sauce and ricotta and sprinkled with grated Pecorino Romano.
Our destination? The Focacceria di Ferdinando, one of my favorite restaurants in the world and one of those places that brings nearly all of my favorite palates together — like Anthony and BrooklynGuy. (In one of our insanely close degrees of separation, Anthony wrote me to tell me how much he loves the Focacceria and to hip me to the fact that awesome Brooklyn songwriter Jesse Harris used to have a band called “the Ferdinandos” in homage to this storied joint.)
Above: The pièce de résistance, the “panelle special” sandwich. A panella (pl. panelle), pronounced pah-NEHL-lah, is a fried chickpea fritter, a classic of Sicilian street food.
The Focacceria di Ferdinando opened its doors in 1904, when it catered to Sicilian longshoremen who worked the dockyards in Brooklyn. The current owner, Francesco Buffa, took over from the second owner in the 1970s, and very little has changed there. (Francesco is one of the most interesting characters I’ve encountered in New York, a true vitellone as he describes himself in Fellinian terms, an ex-Carabiniere and judo instructor who fell in love with the owner’s daughter when he visited the city in the 70s, still sporting a Mark Spitz mustache.)
Above: The vasteddu (or vastedda), slowly braised spleen, served on a roll with ricotta and Pecorino. Alfonso’s post on vasteddu in Palermo is not to be missed.
Long before Batali and Psilakis made offal fashionable again in New York, Francesco served vasteddu (the Sicilian classic slow-braised spleen) in the same way it was served to proletarians who could have as easily stepped out of a De Sica film in the 50s or a Pasolini film in the 60s. This remarkable dish is a trace of another era and a Freudian red thread that ties our culinary heritage to the fiefdoms of pre-Lampedusian insular life.
Above: Still life with cannolo.
One might ask: Where is the focaccia? In fact, the terms focaccia and focacceria (foh-KACH-eh-REE-ah) come from the late Latin focaciam, from focus, meaning fire or hearth. A focacceria is not necessarily a place where focaccia (i.e., the savory flatbread made with olive oil) is baked and sold (although in Liguria or Tuscany, you would most certainly find focaccia at a focacceria). It means simply an eatery or bakery of some sort and as such is applied in Sicilian parlance (again, see Alfonso’s post on his recent trip to Palermo).
Also highly recommended at the Focacceria di Ferdinando: the Caponatina (made in the style of Carini, the town near Palermo where Francesco is from), the Pasta con le Sarde (long noodles with sardines, another Sicilian classic), and — when it’s available — Francesco’s marinated tuna steak with celery sauce.