From cannolis to cheesecake, from gravy-soaked roast beef sandwiches to saucy square pizza, some of the best food in Brooklyn has been served for the past 100 years. To pay some respect to the longest-loved Brooklyn eats—and to introduce our kids to our borough’s delicious history—we’ve been taking a break from our typical weekend brunches to seek out Brooklyn’s best historic restaurants.
We’ve been rolling as a family of four, but we’re focusing on places that are worth a visit with or without kids. We’re starting with the stick-to-your-ribs Sicilian fare at Ferdinando’s Focacceria and will be reviewing more classics in the weeks to come. (If you have a favorite old-Brooklyn spot, please let us know in the comments.)
FUN FACT: Ferdinando’s Focacceria opened in 1904, a couple of years behind Peter Luger (1887) and Bamonte’s (1900), but its causal luncheonette vibes make it more welcoming to children than its elder restaurants. Well-worn penny-tiled floors, Formica tabletops, blue plastic water cups, and mismatched china make it feel like you’re visiting the home of an Italian great-grandma who has been serving messy kids since long before you were born.
When you’re visiting a classic restaurant for the first time, it’s always a good idea to look for the customers who get hugs and handshakes on the way in—and make sure you order whatever they’re having. I copycatted a Manhattan Special order a decade ago, and have since become obsessed with this big, cold mug of sweet coffee soda, crowned with foam, bubbly and fresh from the soda fountain. I’ve spotted bottled Manhattan Special in a few delis, but Ferdinando’s is the only place I’ve seen it on tap.
Ferdinando’s is also one of the few places in the city where you can find a vastedda, a traditional Sicilian sandwich on a soft homemade roll layered with creamy ricotta, grated Italian cheese, and cow spleen. I’ve heard some older guys get real poetic about this sandwich, but personally, I prefer the panelle special, pictured above. It’s the same sandwich with vegetarian-friendly chickpea flour fritters replacing the offal. I like to order it with a little tomato sauce, but I went straight-cheese this time in hopes that my 4-year-old would be into it. (But she wasn’t! Oh well.)
You can get some solid Italian entrees here, like pasta con sarde, a Sicilian dish with sardines, fennel, pignoli nuts, and raisins, or linguine con seppia rich with black squid ink. However, I can’t think of any food more comforting than Ferdinando’s rice ball special. Dripping with cheese, wading in a pool of just-sweet-enough tomato sauce, this orb of al dente rice conceals a molten core of tender beef and peas. I’ll go ahead and say it’s the best thing you could possibly eat for $7.50.
Ferdinando’s is older than the BQE, which you’ll see rolling below Union Street as you talk a long walk from the Carroll Street subway to get here. But once you’ve come all this way and have bathed in the sepia glow of the old-timey sconces and narrow stained-glass windows, you really ought to save room for a cannoli. Pair it with an espresso or a grandmotherly teacup of foamy cappuccino. Thank the host on your way out. My daughter, who can be shy around new people, ate a giant bowl of buttered pasta and then left a little note of gratitude on the table. We really hope this place sticks around for another 115 years.
Ferdinando’s Focacceria, 151 Union Street, Brooklyn, NY 11231, (718) 855-1545