Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sicilian delicacies

We'd planned a day of exploring the Red Hook and Gowanas neighborhoods of Brooklyn, the latest site of the ever-shifting community of poor, resourceful artists colonizing marginal neighborhoods in New York. But the day broke with a heavy spring rain, drenching the streets. We decided to take the risk of going anyway because we'd learned about a place we should go for lunch - suggested by fellow blogger Big Bad Bald Bastard - that sounded too good to pass up.

Ferdinando's Foccacieria is in a funny little part of Brooklyn by the East River. Carved off by the busy Brooklyn Queens Expressway - called The Ditch- during the urban renewal of the 1950's, these little streets are orphaned from their Carroll Gardens neighbors. Two blocks from the river, where shipping container cranes rear against the sky, a small enclave of row houses and green gardens owes its serenity to its remoteness from public transportation.

The nearest subway stop is the G and F train, seven or eight block away at Smith Street and Carroll. We climbed up the steps from the train into a world of driving rain, the wind rushing down the streets and blowing our umbrellas open.

Past the dripping trees and pleasant brownstones, then cross the noisy BQE overpass - Here, on Union Street, across from a pizza and calzone place and a latticina - an Italian dairy store, our destination was a little store-front restaurant.

The guy hanging out at the front door showed us a bucket to dump our dripping umbrellas. We wandered into the room. Ferdinando's has been around since 1903, when it served lunches to the dockworkers and longshoremen working two block away at the Marine Terminal. The floors were tiled in in grey, cream and red mosaic, and a front counter displayed prepared foods and a big espresso machine. Paneled walls were hung with antique prints of Italy, and the ceiling was of original pressed tin. We took a seat at a small stone-topped table in back.

There were only two other tables occupied on this rainy day - a young couple at one, and at another, two women sat, a cup of coffee in front of one and a glass of red wine in front of the other. The waitress was sassy but she gave us time to check out the menu. The daily special was pasta with broccolini and garlic.

Ferdinando's serves sandwiches on foccacia bread, including the specialty sandwich vastedda, or spleen sandwich - tender stewed slices of organ meat served on a fresh-baked roll with riccotta and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. Or you might opt for a meatball or or sausage sandwich instead.

But we were interested in some traditional Sicilian specialties - namely the arancini, or fried risotto balls, and the panelle, fritters made from chick-pea flour that are common street-food in Sicily.

We'd read about other good offerings we wanted to try, including spaghetti with sardines, fennel, raisins and pine nuts.

We asked the waitress if we could have a few antipasti and then decide if we had room for more food. We ordered the special arancini, served with tomato sauce and cheese, an order of panelle, and an order of the Pomodori Seccihi Ripieni - stuffed sun-dried tomatoes.

While we waited, we listen to the ladies next to us talk - they sat there with their coffee and wine and talked non-stop about food.

"I like the linguine with vongole," said one, "I love those clams, I go crazy for them, I can eat them all night."

"And the shrimp," said the other. "Linguine with shrimp."

"I get 'em at Costco, you know? The prices..."

We were dying of hunger by the time the waitress placed first one and then another plate in front of us.

First were the sun-dried stuffed tomatoes - served with some pickled vegetables and a generous helping of caponatina, or eggplant cooked in a light vinaigrette with celery, olives and capers.

Then the impressive rice ball - the arancini. It was served in a pool of tomato sauce and topped with a dollop of ricotta cheese, sprinkled with a little Parmesan. Ferdinando's arancini wrap rice around a stuffing of ground meat and peas moistened with tomato sauce, shape it into a ball that is coated in bread crumbs and fried. Arancia is Sicilian for orange - and the round golden ball was just the size of a large Sunkist navel orange.

Next the panelle were served. Small rectangles of dough made with chick-pea flour, they're fried until they're crispy-puffy, and served with yet another blob of that creamy ricotta and sauce. If they sit just a bit, they go limp and oily, but they're so good when they're hot. Panelle means "panel" and these fritters were like crispy, oily, airy little panels of flavor.

The sun-dried tomatoes were amazing - the tomatoey flavor intense and sweet, the filling garlicy, herbed breadcrumbs. We sliced the rice ball into quarters and sopped it in the sauce - the outer crunch contrasted with the creamy richness of the cheese. The inner filling was good and meaty.

A couple of men came in, obvious regulars, and took a seat opposite the counter. They soon tucked in to meatball sandwiches. The couple to our left were served pasta with broccolini. The ladies started talking about calimari.

We mopped up the sauce and the ricotta with every morsel of the panelle, with every grain of rice.

The waitress came back - "You ready for something else?" I thought longingly of the spaghetti with sardines and wild fennel. There were also potato croquettes, tripe, and eggplant Parmesan on the menu. But I knew I was full. We begged off.

It was only Monday. We were here for a week. We'd come back, we promised ourselves.

Little did we know - our plans for a Saturday visit were foiled by extenuating circumstances and we missed our chance for another visit .... if any of you travel to New York, please go visit Ferdinando's for me and try the spleen sandwich.

Thank you, Big Bad Bald Bastard, for the suggestion.


Cloudia said...

I am SO jealous!!!!

Aloha, Friend

Comfort Spiral

®osadimaggio63 said...

tutto ciò che hai scritto sulla cucina siciliana :-(( devo dire che rattrista un pò la nostra " vera " cucina italiana.
Devo dire che non finirò mai di stupirmi di come si possa far passare per cucina italiana
ciò che veramente italiano non è, e chi mangia poi ci creda veramente e gli possa anche piacere !
Il cibo che hai mangiato, in questo modo, è tutto sbagliato ! :-((
Consiglierei di chiedere quando si entra in ristoranti italiani, se i proprietari sono " veramente " italiani, o, se sono dei discendenti italiani che seguono le vere tradizioni italiane culinarie in fatto di ristorazione .
Io penso che il proprietario del ristorante, dove tu sei entrata per mangiare, non sia un vero italiano-siciliano perchè altrimenti non avrebbe presentato dei cibi tipicamente italiani cucinati in simile modo completamente sbagliato ed orrendo !
Spero che tu non ti sia offesa per ciò che ho scritto ma, come una buona italiana, non amo vedere che chi mangia del cibo italiano, creda che sia veramente italiano.
Ciò che hai mangiato era solo ( perdonami ) della bassa contraffazione !!!!
Ti invito a leggere nel mio blog nel : " ricette italiane " come si prepara e cucina veramente " l'arancino di riso " !!!!
Un abbraccio, e fare attenzione diffidando delle imitazioni ( tra l'altro anche fatte male ) difendendo " tutte " le vere cucine del mondo !!!
PS : Noto che in America, e in particolare a Los Angeles ci sono moltissimi ristoranti con cucina italiana contraffatta !!

Gilly said...

You certainly are adventurous! Not sure I could try spleen sandwich - spleen is not an organ we eat in the UK! We eat liver, kidneys, sweetbreads, heart (not often nowadays) but not spleen! But the rest of the menu sounded delicious!

I tried in vain to get Rosadimaggio's comment translated, but in vain. Google said the page was English, so there!

Aunt Snow said...

Rosa is commenting about the authenticity of a restaurant that claims to be Sicilian.

Rosa - this is an American-Sicilian restaurant that is over 100 years old, so of course it is not going to serve food typical of today's Sicily, but rather reflecting the kind of food served in 1904 to dockworkers. It is an example of how cultures evolve and change when transplanted to another continent.

®osadimaggio63 said...

Hi Aunt S.
condivido ciò che scrivi... negli anni il modo di mangiare e di cucinare si trasforma...però credo che tu non abbia ben tradotto ciò che scritto.
Quello che volevo dire è che non si può offrire al pubblico un tipico piatto siciliano, come " le Arancine di riso " cucinato in un'altra maniera.
Le arancine ( in Italia ) non vengono " innondate di salsa di pomodoro, di ricotta e parmigiano ". ( Orrore ! )
Fare questo significa " pasticciare in cucina ", non sapendo ciò che si stà facendo !
In Italia diremmo che questo ristorante siciliano-americano a cucinato decisamente una schifezza, perchè la sua clientela non sà ciò che mangia !!!
Ogni piatto và preparato nella sua vera ricetta, se poi si vuole fare delle modifiche, come hanno fatto, si è liberissimi di cucinarle ( e perchè no, anche di mangiarle ), ma non si può ( perchè è illegale )farlo passare per una cucina tipicamente italiana con una sua denominazione controllata e registrata.
Qull'arancina di riso non era siciliana, ma bensì americana.
In Italia, diremmo :
" Bisogna dare il giusto nome alle cose ".
Scrivi che questo ristorante lavora da ben 100 anni, io ti posso garantire che se avesse lavorato in Italia non sarebbe arrivato alla fine dell'anno !!
Spero di aver chiarito cosa volevo scrivere, poi ogni persona è libera di fare ciò che vuole e di mangiare ciò che vuole.
Per capirci meglio:
in Italia non vendiamo la Pepsi-Cola per Coca-Cola.
Chi compera la Coca-Cola paga per Coca-Cola.
Chi compera Psi-Cola paga per Pepsi-Cola.
A-ri-ciao :-)

kcinnova said...

I'd be one of the ladies sitting near you with a glass of wine and the daily special!
Spleen? No thank you. I don't think I could ever be that adventurous. But I DO thank you for taking us along on your adventures! :)

Whiskeymarie said...

Man, I love this kind of food- I just had breakfast but now I'm hungry for arancini, dang it.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Whew, I'm glad you enjoyed Ferdinando's. It's like a restaurant trapped in amber, or sucked into a time warp.

And who would have thought that you'd run into a "sassy" waitress in Brooklyn?

Elisa, Croatia said...

I will have to forward this post to my friend Nando who is also a blogger at http://nandoism.com and ask him to go and try that sandwich.

I miss Brooklyn.

Another Kiwi said...

Wow!! Cool post and delicious food, g
I also dunno about a spleen sandwich but what the hell, I'd have a taste anyway.

Life with Kaishon said...

Oh! I loved reading this! I could just imagine being there. Spectacular! The food sounds so delicious. YUM!

Aunt Snow said...

I wanted to answer Rosa - I tried to post earlier but lost my connection.

I think Rosa is saying that Sicilian-American culture has diverged so far from Sicilian culture in the 100+ years that both the cooking style and the words Americans use to name things are virtually unrecognizable to a modern Italian or Sicilian person.

For example, she says flooding arancini in tomato sauce and cheese is a "horror" - of course here in America we love excess, so it has become accepted here.

She says of course anyone can cook what they want, but calling such a thing arancini would be considered ridiculous, and a restaurant that did so would soon be out of business.

Perhaps, Rosa, these giant, American tomatoey and cheesey arancini (delicious!) came about because back in the old days very hungry dockworkers wanted to load up on carbs, and it soon became accepted?

I think now I need to go to Sicily and eat arancini there!