When Saint Cono was a small boy, he prayed constantly and mortified his flesh, striving to become more devout. One day he ran away from his home in Teggiano, Italy, to the Benedictine Monastery of Saint Mary’s, intent on joining the order. When his parents came to retrieve him, he scrambled into a bread oven that had been ignited to receive the day’s loaves. According to the website maintained by Williamsburg’s San Cono di Teggiano Catholic Association, when his parents finally found him, the boy leapt out of the burning oven unharmed, and “the flames did not touch him but instead sweetly caressed his face to splendor his renewed beauty.” This was the first of several miracles before and after his death around 1120 at the age of 18. When the town was attacked in 1497 by Federico of Aragona with an army of 20,000, the saint appeared on the castle walls and flung back cannonballs being fired by the invading army.
Even today, 70 years after the first immigrants arrived in Williamsburg from the impoverished hilltop town, many of the locals are given a first, middle, or confirmation name of Cono. In fact, if you shout “Cono” on Graham Avenue today, heads are still likely to turn. Facing off across the corner of Graham Avenue and Ainslie Street are two unrelated restaurants, the pricey Cono’s O Pescatore and the more modest S. Cono Pizzeria, the latter named in honor of the saint. Easily the best pizzeria in Williamsburg, this brightly lit establishment turns out Sicilian and Neapolitan pies, garlic knots, sausage rolls, and cheese-and-ham-stuffed stromboli strewn with sesame seeds. More unusual is their pan pizza, a new-world invention with a thick crust and a ridge running around the circumference.
This shell is filled with fresh ricotta and mozzarella, ground meat, and crushed tomatoes to make the magnificent lasagna pizza ($19), a gut bomb that’s found in only a few other places in the borough, most notably Romano in Dyker Heights. It qualifies as one of Brooklyn’s proudest culinary inventions. Similarly delectable is the elemental marinara slice ($2), topped only with sweet red crushed tomatoes and garlic. In addition to pizza, there’s a full array of antipasta, pasta, and entrées, making you wonder if this humble pizza parlor can make good on the extravagant promise of its menu. On a recent visit, nearly every table sported a platter of broccoli rabe in one guise or another. You can have the bitter vegetable—southern Italian soul food—sautéed with garlic and olive oil, or tossed with any of the pastas on the mix-and-match pasta and sauce rosters.
Among Teggianese, cavatelli is the favorite pasta, short hand-rolled noodles with a groove that grips the sauce. S. Cono’s best sauce, by the way, is puttanesca, a piquant tomato concoction incorporating capers, chiles, and two types of olives. The name translates as “harlot’s sauce,” either because of the ease of preparation between tricks, or because of its sharp and salty flavor.
As numerous as the pizzas and pastas are the heros. I was able to eat only a few of the 34 offered, but my favorite so far is potato and egg ($4.50). Another southern Italian passion is rice balls, heaped with sauce and cheese and thrust into the oven. As they emerged deliciously steaming, I couldn’t help peeking into the oven’s deep recesses—to see if a small boy might be hiding inside.