“Focacceria” sounds like a trendy Tuscan bakery, but in parts of Brooklyn it denotes an old-fashioned Sicilian eatery specializing in snacks that can be eaten standing up, including short dishes of vegetables and seafood, and, especially, sandwiches made with seeded rolls called focaccia. Flooded with Sicilian immigrants in the 1950s, Bensonhurst boasts the biggest concentration. Gino’s Focacceria exudes a glow that seems to come from the profusion of fresh vegetables ($3 to $5) heaped up inside: strips of breaded zucchini, stuffed artichokes, broccoli rabe sautéed in garlic, well-oiled fava beans, and a tart pickle called giardiniera featuring crunchy cauliflower and big green olives. The seafood selection is nearly as attractive, although a braise of baby octopus bobbing in red liquid like a miniature invasion from Mars looks much better than it tastes. But Gino’s signature is vastedda ($3), a marvelous sandwich that piles boiled cow spleen on a split focaccia, avalanches it in snowy ricotta, then adds coarsely grated parmesan. Spleen? Pretend it’s liver.
Caravello’s crouches in the shadow of the el; the outside looks like a pizzeria, but penetrate the Formica interior and find a steam table offering a few dishes of real distinction. A powerful onion flavor infuses a wan pork and potato stew ($5), while a tomato-drenched lasagna is appealingly whomped with garlic. The rice balls on the counter might be Brooklyn’s best. Known affectionately as arancine (“little oranges”), they’re the size of croquet balls cut in half—crusty, moist, and tomato-tinged. A core of ground meat and cheese rewards your excavations.
While Caravello’s seems to be morphing into a pizza parlor, Joe’s of Avenue U is more like a ’60s diner, with booths large enough to accommodate extended families, who drift in Saturday afternoons to graze among old friends. Painted figures on a vast mural look down from the old country, as Mount Aetna towers in the background; the pasta con sarde ($6.50, Fridays and Saturdays only) is just as spectacular. Bucatini, the spaghetti with the hole down the middle, is heaped with sardines roughly mashed with fennel, pignoli, and currants. All the flavor leaches into the fluid that puddles the bottom of the bowl, but the remedy is at hand—a side of bread crumbs toasted to a deep sienna. Spoon it on the pasta as you eat, mixing it with the broth to form a thick, fragrant sauce.
At 96, Ferdinando’s of Red Hook is the oldest and most picturesque of the Brooklyn focaccerias, retaining its pot-bellied stove and ancient vastedda-making setup. But more popular among its patrons than vastedda is “panelle special,” a sandwich that replaces the spleen with chickpea fritters that are ravioli-like and faintly smoky, a perfect complement to the airy ricotta and sharp grated cheese. Ferdinando’s panelle specials are the city’s best, and if you sit around the dining room for any length of time, you’ll see why: Regimented humps of raw dough periodically fly by on cookie sheets, to be thrust into the oven at the front of the store. Emerging later, these supremely light rolls make a sandwich that really is a snack, not a gutbomb. And you can enjoy it sitting down.