When you go back to the old neighborhood you will be greeted with a “Whereyabin”? The answer in the late 90’s early 21st Century for many Brooklyn transplants was Jersey! And so begins my story.
How sweet it was! Brooklyn, New York was my home for-thirty four years. I was born and raised there and I never thought I would leave! However, times and neighborhoods change. The old ethnic families are supplanted by the new arrivals eager to make their way on the same crowded streets our grandparents and great grandparents did. In two or three generations they too will experience a renaissance of sorts and maybe do what we did and move to the wilds of New Jersey. My immediate family and my wife’s family made the big move and crossed the Verrazano Bridge! We crossed over the waters on our way to where the farmers live and we didn’t stop in Staten Island.
I reminisce about the glory days of growing up in Brooklyn. In my mind those times were the best. Brooklyn was the world to me and I was proud to be from Brooklyn. We loved spending summers and weekends with the Nichols family in Upper Montclair and later on when I was old enough to drive I would come out to crab in Forked River. I loved those summer days crabbing in New Jersey. I would dream of moving out to Jersey. I would pray to God (as I sat in traffic on the Garden State parkway going back home) that some day I would move to the Jersey Shore so that I could go crabbing all summer long. So although the move from city to country was a bit of culture shock, the reality is that I always loved Jersey, not like I loved Brooklyn – that is a special love that only a Brooklynite knows. The taxes and the commute…not so much! But I digress.
When we first moved to the hinterlands it was culture shock. The BENNY go home signs were everywhere! BENNY was a derisive term for anyone coming from Bayone, Edison, Newark or New York. There were no neighbors sitting out on the porch, nor kids playing ball in the street and the churches were not nearly as beautiful and ornate as the ones we left behind. And the food! Let’s just say I understood well what Henry Hill spoke of when he wound up in the witness protection program. He bemoaned the fact that he walked into a restaurant and ordered macaroni with marinara and got egg noodles with ketchup!
Oh how we missed our Brooklyn! We loved our usual haunts, Gargiulo’s in Coney Island, Zio’s in Bay Ridge, L&B Spumoni Garden in Bensonhurst, Salvi’s on Flatbush Avenue, and Foccoceria (Joe’s of Avenue U). The food was excellent all the time. You were never disappointed with your meal. The joints were always jumping and chances were that you would run into someone you knew. They say you can never go home again and it is true but once in a while we return to the old neighborhood and visit some of the restaurants that are still around and it still feels like home.
In Brooklyn we had special stores for everything and we could walk there and back. In a few blocks of each other you would find the butcher, the fish store for fresh fish and the bakery for the freshest, tastiest breads this side of Naples. The bakery also sold fresh pizza and pastries. If we needed vegetables we went to the fruit and vegetable store. We never bought these items in a supermarket. In New Jersey we found we had no choice. As time went on we found a few good places where we could get our Italian delicacies and we found a few good Italian restaurants. Slowly but surely we saw some old favorites come to town like Top Tomato and A&S Pork Store. Jersey is becoming a little more like home used to be.
Growing up back home was the typical Italian American lifestyle. I lived with my parents and brother in the same house with my maternal grandparents in the Marine Park/Sheepshead Bay area. I was born in Bensonhurst but we moved to Marine Park in 1967 to a two family house we had built with my maternal grandparents. My Sicilian grandma and my Neapolitan grandpa were my constant companions. I would wait for my grandma to come home from working in a sweat shop in New York where she was a seamstress (her professional title was “finisher”). Grandpa was a house painter and he liked everything fresh. Fresh fish, fresh vegetables, fresh everything so every night grandma would make stops on Avenue U on her way home from work and pick up fresh fish and vegetables or whatever they would be eating for dinner that night. I have fond memories of watching her clean and de-scale the fish always hoping the contents of its stomach would contain a live crab that I could keep as a pet. That never happened, however, I never stopped hoping and each new fish brought fresh expectations.
Many times I would accompany them on their excursions to the Terminal Market in Canarsie where they bought live snails (Babalucci). Grandma would give me a few to keep as pets. My brother and I would play with them, feed them and race them usually over breakfast in grandma and grandpa’s apartment downstairs. Every morning at sunrise we would run downstairs and have breakfast with them. Breakfast always consisted of a 3 minute runny egg which we opened by tapping the top of the shell, peeling it off, and using a demitasse spoon to scoop out the white part. We didn’t like the yolk so grandma would eat that. We had toast and espresso with Cinzano, a liquor that my cousin Tony the sailor from Italy would bring to my grandparents whenever he visited. It wasn’t sold in America at the time and so it was a big treat. I called it Kazoo because that’s what it sounded like to me and my brother. It tasted great in our coffee. Even now I can just smell the espresso and the Kazoo. If I close my eyes I can almost taste it! Yes we drank coffee with some booze in it, back then it was good for you. We also drank a little wine with our meals and even a short beer all under parental supervision. It probably kept us quiet afterwards.
The summer months were magical in Brooklyn. I would get up early, have breakfast with grandma and grandpa and then go with grandpa to the garden where he would pick giant green tomato worms off his tomato plants and teach me about the roses and fig trees. He would instruct me on how he trained the cucumber vines to grow along the fence and show me how to choose ripe vegetables for picking. It really was great growing up in Brooklyn and having grandparents! I believe watching my grandma cook and eating fresh fruits and veggies from the garden as a kid inspired me to want to cook as I got older.
Holidays were magical, especially Christmas. Not so much because of the gifts because even as a child I was in love with Jesus so it was always about Him. With Christmas came family, food and lots of fun culminating with the big party on New Year’s Eve to celebrate mom’s birthday. The big thing for that night was lentil soup (supposedly it would bring money) and green noodles served with meat sauce. I remember mom and grandma Ciuccio making the pasta verde (green pasta) from spinach and flour. They would roll out the dough into oblong shapes and cut them into noodle strips which were laid out on the beds to dry. It was delicious. At midnight we continued an old Neapolitan custom of throwing old dishes out the window and banging pots and pans. In later years dishes, old boom boxes and whatever else was nearby went out the window.
Every Sunday was special too. It was like a holiday. We started off the day with Mass at Good Shepherd Church. Mom would clean the house listening to Jimmy Roselli or Jerry Vale while cooking Sunday dinner. Dad was tasked with taking the boys out. We went to the New York Aquarium in Coney Island or on the rides at Nellie Bly. Sometimes we would stop along the way and visit his mom, grandma Monti and his sister Aunt Angie. We would stop and get a pizza at Reliable Bakery on 86th Street and bring it to grandma. It was baked fresh and came right out of the oven and into the box. Aunt Angie was known to me as Aunt Kookie because as a baby she would call me Kook and so I knew her as Aunt Kookie. Aunt Kookie never married. She was the dutiful Italian daughter who sacrificed her life to take care of mom and dad.
Other times we would pass by Uncle Willie’s house (dad’s older brother) on Bay 41st Street. The rule was we could never pass by someone’s house without stopping in to say hello. If someone saw you drive past without stopping to visit it was a sin and you would never hear the end of it. Dad would make stops here and there getting cartons of cigarettes, lobster tails or shrimp from the back of trucks. Along the way we might pop in at Sham’s Used Car lot on Coney Island Avenue. The cast of characters in Sham’s would have made a good TV drama, something like the Brooklyn Sopranos. Sham’s is gone now. Replaced by the 61st Precinct (isn’t that irony).
When we arrived back home mom had an excellent meal ready. Dad liked gravy every Sunday which consisted of macaroni with meatballs, sausages, and braciole and sometimes spare ribs or beef tongue in tomato sauce topped with a healthy spoonful of ricotta (pronounced re coh ta). The wonderful smell of gravy cooking (or sauce depending on where you are from) was heavenly. The grandparents and Aunt Kookie are gone now. I am so blessed to have known them all and to have had them in my life for so long. When I was a kid, the world was heaven to me. I have such vivid fond memories of family get-togethers, the melodic voices of my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all speaking various dialects of Italian mixed with English. I look back now at the old black and white pictures of family members crowded around a table in a small kitchen. There were dozens of us. I don’t remember anyone complaining about being crowded. We were family and we were together. Good food and good fun. It was a safe happy environment to grow up in.
I was always fiercely proud of my heritage and I was intent on keeping my Italian heritage alive and well. We lost some of the language but we still had the food, the Church and our Italian American pride. OK so the Pope wasn’t Italian anymore but we had high hopes for the future Italian Pope and we had Soccer. Italia, campione del mondo! When Italy won the soccer tournaments the streets came alive like nothing you have ever seen before. Waves of green, white and red were awash in Brooklyn. The Little Italy of Brooklyn (86th Street and 18th Avenue) had spontaneous block parties. Strangers were hugging and kissing each other, car horns were blowing, and cafés were giving out free coffee. You would have thought it was the end of WW II. Brooklyn was the world. There was a strong sense of ethnic pride and a strong neighborhood feeling. You belonged to something bigger than yourself.
Being a citizen of Brooklyn made you a citizen of the world. You could travel any place and everyone knew of Brooklyn. Most times people knew you were from Brooklyn just from your accent. Our accent was something the self styled intelligentsia frowned on. It was an accent that some actors paid big money to learn how to imitate. Our accent speaks volumes and is the result of generations of Germans, Irish, Italians, Poles, Russians and Slavs mispronouncing various words which now are part of our vernacular. I didn’t know how to say sandwich properly until I was an adult. It was a sangwich (probably a derivative of sang a wich). Mispronunciations not withstanding, some of the most brilliant people in America came out of Brooklyn and I would pit them against any snob from anywhere.
Brooklynites are a tenacious, fun loving, big hearted, intelligent, hard working good looking bunch. We don’t give up easy and failure is never an option. In fact, there used to be a sign greeting you as you came off the Verrazano Bridge from Staten Island. It read “Welcome to Brooklyn, the 4th Largest City in America.” This sign featured prominently in the TV sitcom Welcome Back Kotter which made John Travolta (a native of Jersey) a household name. This sign survived well in to the late 1970s early 1980s. Keep in mind, we were no longer a city not since we were annexed to New York City in 1898 but we held on as long as we could. We never give up. For us Brooklyn was it! Now the sign says “Welcome to Brooklyn. How Sweet It Is”, a line made famous by one of Brooklyn’s most famous sons Jackie Gleason of Honeymooner’s fame. I go back now and I see that sign and I sigh and say, how sweet it was.
My wife Susan and I always spent a lot of time with her grandmothers and my Aunt Kookie before and after we were married. We would spend many a summer day at grandma Ucciferri’s house at 702 President Street where I would tend the garden that my wife’s grandpa used to tend so beautifully. I planted new fig trees and pruned the old peach tree grandpa planted. I used the rusting old rebar grandpa took from the construction job and used as tomato stakes for my tomatoes and I trained the cucumber plants along the fence the way my grandpa showed me so many years before. We watched grandma Ucciferri make pasta fagioli, fresh green beans in marinara sauce and cocktails for Aunt Tina. She was my wife’s version of Aunt Kookie in that she never married and stayed at home with mom and dad too. Aunt Tina worked at the Brooklyn Museum and when she got home she expected grandma to have her cocktail ready and dinner prepared. We watched grandma make the contadini dishes she had been cooking for over 70 years and we learned how to do it the right way.
In the early 1980s the remnants of the old days still thrived on President Street. Zia (grandpa Ucciferri’s sister) and her family lived a couple of doors down from grandma Ucciferri on President Street. The men were all dead, the grandmas survived. They were a strong breed! Grandma Ucciferri would slap you on the back in a jovial way and you would go flying. The thing I loved most about visiting them was being treated like a king. These women knew how to treat a man! Whenever I came in to grandma Ucciferri’s kitchen she would order Sue to get me the bottle of wine, the loaf of fresh Italian bread and the dried sausage. This of course would drive her crazy. I would sit there with a smile from ear to ear cajoling her to listen to grandma. She was always good about it and out of respect for grandma she always got me the food. I ate it up both figuratively and literally.
One day Sue and grandma encouraged me to visit Zia, so off I went down the block two doors. It was around 2 P.M. I knocked on the door and Zia greeted me like I was the Pope. They called me by various mispronunciations of Eddie. So I was alternatively greeted as Heddy, Heery, Henry or something close but I loved it all. So Zia ushered me in and brought me to the back yard to show me her garden but especially the mint plants. They were the biggest, most beautiful mint plants I had ever seen (and even to this day I have never seen mint plants like that). She asked me if I wanted some and before I could answer she grabbed a fistful and pulled the plants out root and all and handed them to me. We went back inside and I could smell something cooking. I just knew that this was going to be my lucky day. Zia had a large; I mean HUGE pot on the stove. Just like at grandma Ucciferri’s I was seated at the head of the table and a jug of wine and a loaf of fresh Italian bread with dried sausage was placed before me like an offering to a god. I sat at the table munching on Italian bread and smelling of mint plants which were now in a plastic bag on the table. I was drinking the wine and chewing dried sausage when I noticed a leg bubble out of this big pot. It was an octopus leg. And then another would pop up and over the side and Zia would quickly beat it back in with her wooden spoon. It was dead of course but the boiling water brought animation to it. I asked (knowing full well what was in the pot) if she was making pulpo. She of course said yes and showed me how she added what I think was baking soda to the pot to tenderize the octopus. And then I heard a question that to this day I remember being accompanied by angels singing. Zia said “Heddy, do you want some pulpo?” “Oh yes Zia I would love some” I said with a big smile on my face. So Zia hacked off some legs and a bit of the head and chopped them up, dressed them with olive oil and lemon and plated it for me. I sat there for two hours eating and drinking. I drank an entire bottle of wine. I finished a whole loaf of Italian bread and I may have eaten the entire octopus. It was great! Suddenly there was a knock on the door. Sue and Aunt Tina were looking for me; they couldn’t imagine where I had gone!
Visiting with the Ucciferri’s on President Street was like going back in history, the way things were, the way they should be now! I remember watching grandma Ucciferri cook and Susan asking her how she made this dish or that dish and reminiscing about her voyage to Brooklyn from Isernia Provincia di Campobasso. She told us about her family in the old country and her youth in Italy. She reminisced about how she loved singing in the garden but that her father scolded her for doing so. We would encourage her to sing the old Italian songs while we played in the garden in the shade of the peach tree that grandpa planted from a pit so many years ago. We laughed and laughed imagining how her father would have yelled at her for singing out loud in the garden.
Grandma Ucciferri loved to cook for us. I remember her with love. I have one of her ladles which I cherish. Every time I use it I think of her and say a prayer. She was a very prayerful woman, always praying for the family and very much in love with God. Grandpa Ucciferri lost an eye in a construction accident, but his other eye was spared because of the fervent prayers of grandma to St. Lucy the patron saint of eyesight. In gratitude grandma would keep a candle lit to St. Lucy all the time. When Sue and I left to go home she would sit in the kitchen with the candle lit to saint Lucy flickering above her on top of a tin utility closet and pray her Rosary for our safe return home. I know this because on occasion I would forget something, run back in and catch her praying. She would look up from her beads and smile and say I am praying for you. She was a wonderful gift and I am so blessed to have known her and Aunt Tina as well as Susie’s grandma Anne who had long since stopped cooking but was a real pistol and fun to hang out with especially at the Bingo parlor but I digress again. We have a habit of doing that in my family.
I decided to write an e-cook book I entitled COOKLYN. I wanted to keep the traditions going and I decided that the food, the real old contadini (peasant) dishes which you pay an arm and a leg for now was the way to do it. This is how I would keep the traditions and culture alive, simply by keeping the food alive, the way we used to make it.
For years and years my family ate at an old school real Neapolitan restaurant on Mulberry and Broome Streets in Little Italy called Grotta Azzurra (the Blue Grotto). The Davino family owned it for several decades and used the original recipes brought over from Italy from the late 19th Century memorialized in a self published book by John Davino. The restaurant was a small place in the basement of this old building on the corner. The line would start at the bottom of these steep and narrow stairs and wind up and around the block. The food was unbelievable. It was a family tradition to go there every year for my parents’ anniversary in September. It seemed like everyone was family when we were down there. People would pass their food around for strangers to taste. Sometimes the wait was so long that Big John Davino would send food up the line to hold people over. Many famous people ate there and the walls were lined with pictures of stars and politicians and of course a portfolio shot of my brother and me. We did commercials and movies as kids so we rated some wall space in a grotto. We met the prize fighter Rocky Graziano there one night and on another occasion some “men of honor” sent over some fish and a bottle of wine to our table. It was something else. After a big dinner we would stroll the neighborhood which was all decked out for the impending feast of San Gennaro, stop into Ferrara’s for some dessert and chat with whomever we met on the streets.
Now, every time we take my parents out for dinner in New Jersey my dad will ask for a dish he remembers from the old Grotta Azzurra and no one makes it that way anymore. He always asks for a dish not on the menu and he is always disappointed. So I went on line looking for the cookbook that John and Kathy who were the second generation owners put out in 1977. It is unavailable. Scarcer than hens’ teeth as Norton (of Honeymooners fame) used to say and it got me thinking. I figured that since I like cooking so much and people love what I cook that I should write a cook book. I could memorialize my recipes of which many are actually from my mom and dad and my mother-in-law and my mother-in-law’s mom, grandma Ucciferri as well as Aunt Kookie. This is a tribute to them too.
When I cook I usually add ingredients by sight. I am not a fancy chef. Cooking is not like baking, nothing has to be precise, however, I painstakingly figured out measurements, preparation and cooking times in order to assist the cook who needs to be precise (and even at that nothing is truly precise). The bottom line with cooking is to have fun and experiment with the recipes. Eat, drink, be merry and live life. Life is beautiful and one of God’s greatest gifts is the ability to enjoy a nice cocktail with some antipasti and a great home cooked meal with the people you love. The recipes in my book are meals that I have cooked, eaten and thoroughly enjoyed over the years. Most of them are old fashioned Italian dishes with their origins in Brooklyn by way of Southern Italy, but not all the dishes are Italian and some are my own inventions, therefore, they are real Brooklynite fare.
It is funny now. As I sit in Friday night traffic on the commuter bus home in the summer I gaze out the window into the sea of vehicles all jockeying to get ahead of one another. I notice all the New York license plates and the folks from Northern New Jersey with beach chairs loaded in and on top of their vehicles making their way to the Jersey Shore and I think to myself…BENNY go home! Buona salute e’ Dio Benedica.
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