Founded in 1904, Ferdinando’s Focacceria is the city’s oldest Sicilian restaurant and also one of the longest-running Italian restaurants in NYC – surpassed only by Rao’s (1896) and Bamonte’s (1900). It began as a food stand selling small round sandwiches to longshoremen working at the nearby Columbia Waterfront docks on the western edge of Cobble Hill. This style of sandwich mirrored the focaccerias of Palermo, Sicily’s capital, and two fillings were the most common: cow’s spleen, ricotta, and grated caciocavallo cheese; and the chickpea-stuffed fried ravioli called panelle, often with potatoes. Both historic sandwiches are still available at Ferdinando’s Focacceria, located at 151 Union Street, just west of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
I hadn’t eaten there in over a decade and had heard from various sources that it had gotten mediocre (in fact I wasn’t impressed the last time I ate there). But I had to see it for myself, while also craving the dishes that make Sicilian cuisine, rich in seafood and vegetables, unique. The current owner is the fourth of the restaurant: Frank Huff, who has been running the restaurant since 1975, now supported by his three sons.
You might recognize the deep dark space as it appeared in Martin Scorsese The departed. The stamped tin ceiling, rickety tables flanked by bentwood chairs, historic photos of Sicily, rustic brick walls, and dazzling globe lights showcase restaurant design principles from a century ago. It all adds up to a space that feels like it’s a permanent working class hangout with no pretensions.
A friend and I sat in the back by an open window through which we could see a neighbor planting her backyard garden. First came a seafood salad ($23) consisting primarily of squid and octopus, crispy celery, and an olive oil dressing. It was superb, smooth and tangy with garlic, especially when served with the small round buns made on the premises, the same ones used in the sandwiches. A baked artichoke ($13) soon followed, charred on the edges of the sturdier leaves, with a spiced breadcrumb filling so rich and moist it passed as pudding. No wonder, since breadcrumbs are used throughout Sicilian cuisine, sometimes as a cheap (and convenient) substitute for grated cheese.
We chased our seafood salad and stuffed artichoke with a vastedda ($10), one of those dockworker sandwiches, this one focused on spleen and two cheeses on an olive oil bun. The spleen tastes like grainy liver, a bit funky in a way, but softened by the smeared ricotta and shredded caciocavallo. (Back in Sicily, there’s no ricotta in the sandwich, a Neapolitan ingredient that may have been first added at Ferdinando’s.)
Next came one of the restaurant’s giant rice balls, super crispy on the outside and filled with ground beef and peas. We opted for the deluxe edition ($10), which is smothered in tomato sauce and cheese. Yes, one of those glittering balls could be a full meal, especially when you’re craving an extra roll or two — which a waiter happily provides — to soak up the sauce.
Of the pasta and other entrees, some strictly Sicilian and some not, we opted for the Sicilian: Pasta con Sarde ($20) is unique to the island, powdering sardines and fennel into a savory tomato sauce sweetened with raisins and flavored with Bread topped is crumbs. This version is subtle and tastes less canned (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) than the more assertive version available, say, at Joe’s on U Avenue in Gravesend, another Sicilian mainstay in Brooklyn.
As the oldest Sicilian restaurant in the city, Ferdinando’s menu has over the years absorbed more influences from nearby regions of Italy such as Calabria, Bari and Campania through other immigrants than the Sicilian restaurants that opened in the 50’s and later. This is particularly true of the city’s newest Sicilian restaurants, places like Pane Pasta and Amuni, where the menu reflects the food of contemporary Palermo rather than a centuries-old take on it.
Still, Ferdinando’s Focacceria is unsurpassed as a nostalgic reflection of the Italian cuisine that fed generations of dockers who worked on Brooklyn’s docks, and it was a real pleasure to eat while contemplating the history of the neighborhood. We finished with an excellent cannoli ($8) – crunchy and stuffed with ricotta to order, which tasted fluffier and fresher and happily without the candied fruit and chocolate chips that are often added to fancier versions at patisseries – and then strolled down to the Waterfront, where giant container dock cranes have replaced the busy human scene of a century ago.
Interested in other Sicilian restaurants and places to discover Sicilian regional cuisine? See this newly released map.