Bombarded with regional cuisines straight from Italy, we tend to forget our own Italian-American cooking. Originating late in the 19th century, as immigrants began arriving from Naples, Calabria, Apulia, and Sicily, its signature dishes—pizza, Sunday gravy, spaghetti with meatballs, and Italian heroes—were formulated in the ensuing decades. One thing in particular amazed the new immigrants: the cheapness of cheese and meat in America. According to NYU professor Hasia Diner in Hungering for America, these immigrants subsisted on pasta seasoned with its own cooking water in the old country.
While most Italian-American restaurants have embraced newfangled notions like balsamic vinegar, truffle oil, and arugula, a few old-timers struggle to retain their traditional Italian-American menus, still peddling the cooking that New York magazine critic Seymour Britchky once called “red and dead.” These places are often isolated neighborhood spots, and Brooklyn has the richest collection of them, including Frost in Williamsburg, Tommaso’s in Bay Ridge, and Michael’s in Marine Park. Even more obscure is Colandrea New Corner, founded in 1939 in Dyker Heights: Occupying a lofty promontory over the sunken Fort Hamilton Parkway, in a cul-de-sac that requires Google Mapping to find, the place clearly enjoys the favor of someone in the city government, because right on the public street in front of it has been stenciled a free parking lot.
Upon entering, you’ll find a long barroom flanked by three glitzy dining rooms, decorated with knockoffs of classical statues and original oil paintings that must have been purchased at one of those sales held at a Holiday Inn near an airport. Another thing that strikes you is the availability of gambling opportunities—state lottery cards are displayed; a vending machine offers scratch-offs; and there’s a board flashing numbers for something called “Instant Lottery,” which you can play every five minutes as you twirl your forkful of spaghetti. We lost $4 that way in short order.
Eggplant rollatini ($9.75) takes a favorite Sicilian vegetable and opulently freights it with fresh ricotta cheese and thick tomato sauce. Colandrea’s version is irresistible, though it forgets to do any rolling: The dish is presented in a diffuse heap, which easily satisfies four as an appetizer. Mozzarella receives equal play in spedieni alla Romana ($11.75). Normally, “spedieni” refers to smallish kebabs of pork or beef, beloved of Sicilians and also a favorite bar-food staple around Binghamton, New York. This spedieni, however, is a skewered and deep-fried cheese sandwich flooded with chunky lemon-anchovy sauce. If you’d prefer to skip the stinky little fish, order mozzarella in carroza (“carriage,” $8.75), a similar battered and toasted cheese sandwich, sided with marinara instead.
The upper end of the menu is laden with veal and pork, two meats the Italian immigrants quickly took to. At Colandrea’s, higher-end entrées featuring these meats are served with green beans and potato croquettes, banishing pasta altogether. Foremost among these entrées is an unforgettable pair of huge, flame-grilled pork chops ($17), doused with pickled cherry peppers and their pickling vinegar, rendering the chops tart, smoky, and spicy. Poultry-wise, chicken cacciatore comes in a wine sauce heaped with mushrooms, tomatoes, and prosciutto, demonstrating the influence of French cooking on Italian (the influence goes both ways). Make sure you order the bone-in version, because the bones enhance the flavor of the dish.
Clams are a Brooklyn tradition that goes back to the Canarsie Indians, embraced by Italian-Americans in the form of raw and baked clams. The baked ones ($7.50 for a half-dozen) are stunning, with the bivalves and their salty juices entombed in crisp breadcrumbs reeking of garlic. Brooklyn old-timers will select raw clams, served with a squeeze of lemon, which taste something like salty rubber bands. (Colandrea doesn’t bother with oysters.)
Still, pastas—and baked pastas, in particular—represent the restaurant’s strongest culinary ties to southern Italy. Baked ziti can be had with eggplant and mozzarella in the Sicilian style or veined with ricotta in a recipe that originated in the Sorrento peninsula, where the best ricotta comes from. The lasagna can barely hold the sausage and cheese stuffing between its expansive, well-sauced layers, and a further heap of ground beef on top telegraphs the abundance of meat in the New World. To get spaghetti with meatballs, you must order the components separately. Spaghetti with marinara is $9.50, and a pair of meatballs is $5, re-creating one of the towering triumphs of Italian-American cooking, one that has long been clasped to the bosom of mainstream American cuisine.
And you won’t be disappointed by the size of the meatballs.