Gino Cammarata, Gelato King
Gino Cammarata talks to himself while he shops. Sniffing an orange, peering at bottles of olive oil, he mutters unhappily in Italian, remembering the smell of tangerine peel in October and the fragrance of ripening olive trees. "When I go shopping, I go crazy," he says. If there's anything that would make you an obsessive about food, it's growing up in Sicily, like he did, on a farm where your father cultivates citrus, olives, and peaches. Where your grandmother always has a surplus of fresh goat's milk. Where you work in your uncle's restaurant, as a 10-year-old gelato-making prodigy.
Cammarata, who moved to New York in 1970 when he was 15, has just opened Piattini, a Sicilian-inflected restaurant in Bay Ridge where he serves his now-famous gelato, along with dishes like bucatina with sardines, linguini with bottarga, charcuterie, and various fish and meat secondi. Cammarata's story is an immigrant's tale of making it (and not making it) in New York, but it's also a parable of the city's restaurant industry over the last 25 years—skyrocketing rents, condos replacing restaurants, and the little guys ending up in Brooklyn.
The Cammarata family left their farm, and the "modern, American-style" gas-station-cum-restaurant owned by Gino's uncle, to settle on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village. There, Giuseppe, Gino's father, got a job at Zampieri Brothers Bakery on Cornelia Street. "All his life, he was cold," says Gino, describing the chilly early mornings his father spent in the orchard. "And he always wanted to become a baker so that he could be warm."
Imagine leaving a small Sicilian farm town and arriving in Greenwich Village in the '70s. Hippies filled Washington Square Park—Gino thought they were exotic and fabulous: "The long hair! The guitars! I never wanted to go back to Sicily. I thought, here, I wouldn't have to go to school." The food was a different matter. In those days, the pasta was mushy and the tomato sauce sour. He started eating nothing but ham and eggs. On the weekends, he delivered bread from Zampieri to legendary venues like the Rainbow Room and the Waldorf-Astoria, chatting up the chefs along the way. After starting at 1 a.m., he always reached a certain midtown Italian steakhouse around 6 a.m., where the chef would give him a glass of wine.
On a recent Tuesday, the day Piattini is closed, I stopped by the restaurant to talk to Gino and check out his gelato machine. Gino is a garrulous, sturdy, middle-aged man, in a loose, white linen shirt tucked into chinos, with a gold chain around his neck. He's prone to proclamations like, "Good food, good wine, and good women, that's all I want!"
Gino pats his gelato maker as you would a good dog. He bought the squat, Italian-made machine in 1987, and has been lugging it around with him ever since—wherever Gino and that machine go, his followers scamper behind, seeking out what is considered the best gelato in the city. "It's my Ferrari," he says of the contraption. The machine churns out nine-liter batches, turning Gino's mixtures of milk, cream, and flavorings like ricotta, licorice with mint, hazelnuts, and Sicilian pistachios into miraculous confections. The cassada—a frozen version of the Sicilian cake of ricotta and candied fruit—is a dense, creamy concoction that tastes more like ricotta than ricotta.
Back in 1982, Giuseppe—along with Gino, his brother, Enzo, and their mother, Maria—went out on their own and opened an Italian gourmet shop and restaurant called Siracusa, after the region where the family came from. This was just as well, because a year or two later, Zampieri Brothers closed to make way for condos. Siracusa was situated on Fourth Avenue near Astor Place, a kind of culinary no-man's land at the time, populated with bookstores.
At Siracusa, Gino was in the kitchen with his parents, while Enzo worked the front of the house and the wine program. The restaurant sold Italian groceries and served Sicilian standards. In 1984, in the Times's Diner's Journal, Bryan Miller praised the gelato, the pastas—like fettuccine with porcini—and the Italian wines (a bottle of Barbera d'Alba for $9!).
But as the restaurant became more popular, the family dressed it up until it resembled, in Gino's words, a grand hotel lobby. The look didn't work for the neighborhood, so when the lease was up in 1992, the family closed Siracusa, made repairs, and revamped the dining room. They reopened as Bussola Bar & Grill, which had a more casual, affordable approach.
Still, the house specialty was Gino's gelato, and when Ruth Reichl visited in 1997 for a Diner's Journal, she gave the pasta with bottarga special mention, before noting, "The Cammaratas have always made great gelato. That has not changed." Alas, when 9/11 rolled around, business suffered. Then, in the old familiar story, the landlord cranked up the rent from $5,000 a month to $35,000. The neighborhood was gussying up, and the Cammaratas could no longer afford to be Manhattan restaurateurs. They closed Bussola Bar & Grill in 2002. Later, the space became Ippudo.
"It was so sad. [The restaurant] was my life, me and my brother," Gino says. He disappeared from the city for five years, working on the line as the pasta guy at a resort in the Hamptons. Then the resort was sold to make way for, yes, condos.
So Gino did what many New Yorkers priced out of Manhattan did before him—he moved to Brooklyn. (Actually, he already lived in Bensonhurst.) He and his trusty gelato machine set up in an unlikely location: a tanning salon in Bensonhurst, selling gelato from a small window. But then he found a proper spot on Fourth Avenue and Marine Avenue in Bay Ridge, and he and Enzo decided to give it another go.
At Piattini, the gelato machine is ensconced in the back, behind a small freezer display case holding the lovely green pistachio confection, the nut-dotted hazelnut, the licorice, and the blood orange–almond milk. On the handsome wooden tables and chairs, diners slurp up the Sicilian classic—bucatina with sardines, raisins, and cauliflower—and crunch on the small fried polpettes that Maria taught Gino how to make, in salt cod or squash-and-pistachio versions. Actually, Maria still likes to putter around, and sometimes takes the bus from Bensonhurst to fry up cartocci (fried shells), which Gino fills with shrimp and mascarpone.
I wished Gino luck as I headed out the door—and meant it. He replied that business was "beautiful." "You should see the Verrazano Bridge at night!" he exclaimed. "It's kinky!" Silence. "Not kinky! What do you say? Funky! It's funky!"
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