110 Years of Spleen Sandwiches at Ferdinando's Focacceria
Photos by Kevin Kessler for the Village Voice
Paul's Focacceria opened in 1904, the same year the ice cream cone was invented and Cy Young threw the first perfect game. Paul's was located on a residential street just a few blocks away from the Brooklyn piers, and it served traditional Sicilian sandwiches to the local Italian community and Italian longshoremen clamoring for a taste of home. It was only open for lunch. Today, the longshoremen and working pier may be gone, but Paul's remains — it's now called Ferdinando's Focacceria (151 Union Street, Brooklyn; 718-855-1545).
Ferdinando's has witnessed a lot of history, including the building of the BQE in its backyard in the 1950s. The restaurant occupies the first floor of a three-story brownstone and retains the original wooden French doors, though the interior doesn't necessarily look like it's been around for 110 years. It doesn't feel dated or kitschy, but it does sport its original tile floors (those seen in every Italian Mob movie) and original tin ceiling, plus small tables with marble tops — this is old world mixed with 1950s Brooklyn Italian.
For the past 40 years, the place has been run by Frank Buffa, a man with short-cropped gray hair and one of the greatest accents of all time. Born in Sicily, Buffa was first a police officer whose small town lacked enough crime for him to ever have to wear his uniform. During the day, Frank would go to the gym and study judo; at night he took classes in physical therapy. In 1971, at age 21, Buffa traveled to Brooklyn, staying with a distant cousin who offered to put him up for one week. Shortly after, he was attending a Giani Morandi concert at Madison Square Garden and met his now wife of 40-plus years. Her father, Ferdinando, was the third owner of the then 60-year-old establishment. After Ferdinando passed away suddenly in 1975, Frank took over full-time. Since then, he's seen the neighborhood change as the last of the longshoremen shipped off and a once fully Italian neighborhood gave way to well-maintained beards and tortoiseshell glasses. "It's a-like the Soho Village over here," Buffa says.
Since the beginning, Ferdinando's menu has been heavy on Sicilian classics, especially those once served in open-air markets. The vastedda sandwich — composed of calf's spleen topped with ricotta and grated caciocavallo cheese — is a particularly interesting beast. Served on a freshly baked round roll, the spleen has a gamy taste. "An acquired taste, you know what I mean," says Buffa.
What old Italian Brooklyn really looks like
The real reason many people trek to Ferdinando's is for the famed panelle sandwich. Served on the same fresh-baked roll, fried chickpeas take center stage, underneath a pile of ricotta and caciocavallo. Shaped into small triangle patties, the chickpea sandwich is akin to sweet fried potatoes that have been smashed. Sweet and softly fried, it's an old-school sandwich that has never needed changing.
And since taking over Ferdinando's, Buffa has changed little, besides adding dinner service and more classic Sicilian dishes to expand on the once sandwich-heavy menu. Appetizers include freshly made burrata and calamari tossed with lemon, while entrees highlight fresh-made pasta — see the Penne Alla Puttanesca, with anchovies, onion, and capers. Pungent and oily, the dish is as Sicilian as they come. The desserts are standard, and the list is normally two dishes. The house-made cannoli is good, but a short espresso is better.
Frank Buffa: Don't mess with this guy.
These days, Buffa is still putting in fifteen-hour days, six days a week. "The secret to a marriage is you don't be a-home too much," he says, half-joking. Buffa's sons are both in their twenties, and are the heirs to the business. They work alongside their father while not in school. And don't fret, Ferdinando's won't be forced out by a rent hike anytime soon — Buffa bought the building many years ago.
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