“I’d rather have someone stab me in the heart,” a Bensonhurst patriarch bellows when he learns his daughter has fallen for a black man in Spike Lee’s 1991 Jungle Fever. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Bensonhurst gained infamy as a place where Italian residents guarded the gates against newcomers and walking while black was considered a punishable crime. Today, black Bensonhurstians say racial tensions in the neighborhood have eased somewhat, and new waves of Chinese, Russian, and Latino immigrants have arrived, chasing the same dream the Italians once did—a suburb of their own. But the Italian influence still permeates the streets of this brick-hewn residential area, especially the vibrant 18th Avenue, where the local playground is named after legendary Italian general Giuseppe Garibaldi. If you’re looking for a mass in Sicilian dialect or cookies like your nonna used to make, Bensonhurst is the place. Think Little Italy without the neon.
Boundaries: 14th Avenue to the northwest, 61st Street to the northeast, McDonald Avenue and Stillwell Avenue to the southeast, and 86th Street to the southwest.
Getting There: The N, W, and M trains run through Bensonhurst, stopping at 18th Avenue, 20th Avenue, and Bay Parkway; beginning February 22, the D line will replace the W. Allow 45 minutes to 1 hour from Union Square. The B9, B64, and B82 buses connect the area with other parts of Brooklyn.
Main Drags: With many business owners boasting over 15 years on the block, 18th Avenue feels more like a family compound than a commercial district. Locals greet one another by name in the strip’s cafés, bakeries, and social clubs, while merchants barter with each other, exchanging a year’s supply of pasta for a tailored suit. Down on 86th Street, the jumble of discount clothing stores, electronics outlets, and produce markets recalls Astoria or Jackson Heights. A new Chinatown is taking shape near the intersection of 86th Street and Avenue U, anchored by the giant T&H supermarket.
Housing: The gentrification that brought trendy restaurants to nearby Bay Ridge has yet to transform quiet Bensonhurst, where vacancy rates for apartments can reach 15 to 20 percent. Houses, however, are selling fast as senior citizens cash in and follow their children to Staten Island or New Jersey.
Average Price to Rent: Studio, $750; One Bedroom, $900; Two-Bedroom, $1200; Three-Bedroom, $1400
Average Price to Buy: Single-family home, $475,000; Two-family home, $575,000
Best Restaurants: Though L&B’s Spumoni Gardens (2725 86th St) is technically in Gravesend, Bensonhurst residents flock to the restaurant’s outdoor patio in summer, and huddle in the raucous, wood-paneled dining room when the weather turns cold. Ludovico Barbati founded the restaurant in 1939, and his sons have taken up the family business. Order the chicken Ludovico ($13.95); you can slurp the garlicky gravy while the dish’s namesake smiles benevolently from a mural on the wall. Also try the cold antipasto ($9.95), a wintry mountain of prosciutto, cappicola, and soprassata with ramparts of cheese and a vegetable core.
Dining In: Alfredo Ferrara, owner of Queen Ann Ravioli (7205 18th Avenue), tries out his newest creations on his neighbors, pioneering quirky filling combinations like asparagus and smoked mozzarella. Sea Breeze fish market at 18th Avenue and 85th Street sells the cheapest salmon outside Flushing. The New York state legislature passed a resolution honoring Alba pastry shop (7001 18th Avenue)—maybe it’s their mouthwatering selection of sugar-free pastries, brimming with custard and authentic enough to fool even the pickiest cannolophile. For savory pastries, try the Mandarin Bakery (86th Street and Bay 32nd Street), where crumbly, larger-than-average pork buns cost 60 cents.
Best Shopping: Families from as far as Pennsylvania and Canada make regular pilgrimages to 18th Avenue to stock up on an array of obscure Italian goods. At S.A.S. Italian Records (7113 18th Avenue), you’ll find imported milk bath, fluorescent soccer scarves, three-foot-wide pots for preparing tomato sauce, and Neopolitan dirty bingo (if you don’t know what that is, you’ll have to visit the store).
Landmarks: Once one of Brooklyn’s most elegant wedding venues, the 42-year-old Cotillion Terrace dazzles with its mirrored bar, vaulted ceiling, chandeliers, and marble. Business is slow, however, and the Cotillion’s owners plan to demolish the club in favor of condos and a smaller venue. You can still put on a beaded gown from nearby Kelly’s Kreations (7217 18th Avenue), twirl around the ballroom floor, and pretend it’s your big day. But don’t delay; the wreckage starts April 1.
Cultural Institutions: The Beacon Program, a joint project of the Chinese Christian Church, the Federation of Italian-American Organizations, and the Jewish Community House, provides free instruction in art, languages, sports, computers, and more for both children and adults. The Federation also offers a variety of services for senior citizens, who make up one-fifth of Bensonhurst’s population. Nearly every town in southern Italy sponsors its own storefront social club, where men gather to shoot the breeze with pals from the old country.
Events: “The church didn’t make her a saint,” local resident Pio Andreotti says of Santa Rosalia, Sicily’s patron saint. “The people made her a saint.” Bensonhurst residents honor their santuzza each August with a procession, festival, and soccer tournament that last for 11 days and draw tens of thousands, including the neighborhood’s growing Mexican population, who add their mariachi music to the blend of food aromas and rose petals.
Politicians: Councilmembers Vincent Gentile (D), Simcha Felder (D), James Oddo (R), and Dominic Recchia (D); Assemblymembers Peter J. Abbate (D) and William Colton (D); State Senator Martin J. Golden (R); and Congressman Vito J. Fosella (R).
Community Issues: Bensonhurst’s new ethnic composition breeds both tension and tolerance. Since 2001, Asian students have reported several incidents of discrimination in local schools, even filing complaints with the city’s human rights commission. But many Asians say they feel welcome in the neighborhood. “I feel like people treat you with respect,” said deli worker Walker Abbas. “[They’re] nice and open-minded. If there’s a minor incident, that’s part of life.”
“After 9-11, some people asked me why I was renting to Muslims,” confided Kelly’s Kreations owner Kelly Sessa. “I said, ‘Oh yeah, right, and remember World War II when we threw Japanese in concentrations camps?’ Everyone’s an immigrant here.”
Crime Statistics: The 62nd Precinct, which serves Bensonhurst, reported three murders in 2003, up two from 2002; 11 rapes, down five; 224 robberies, down 47; 533 burglaries, down 75; and 158 felonious assaults, down 4.