It seemed like a miracle — an obscure hero shop in the mean back streets of Red Hook, one of the foremost purveyors of the legendary Italian roast beef hero, suddenly pops up in Gramercy Park. How would a working class hero look dressed up in a tux? I worried as I peddled over to Defonte’s on my bike, risking my neck as I slid through the copious slush that still lined the streets.
On my first visit, I directed all my attention to that signature roast beef hero, even though a half dozen cold heroes and two dozen hot heroes are offered from a long steam table that constitutes a museum of warm meat. There are salads and a few baked pastas, too. The place is much more well staffed than the original Brooklyn location, with identically dressed sandwich fixers lined up shoulder-to-shoulder behind the gleaming counter.
The sandwich has the regulation wad of rare roast beef, and slice of fresh mozzarella, which is made on the premises and way rich. Standing in for the brown gravy, which comes from a can in many Brooklyn examples (I raced around documenting the Brooklyn roast beef phenomenon back in 2002, and stumbled on the original DeFonte’s, founded 1922, soon thereafter), is a delicate broth, which the menu is pleased to call “natural jus.” (The French term is evidence of the effect Gramercy Park has had on this sainted sandwich shop, I suppose.) The jus is spread on one side of the loaf as the sandwich is prepared. DeFonte’s innovation, by the way, is adding thin slices of fried eggplant to the sandwich.
One bite and I nearly fell off the bar stool. “Shit! this is good,” I couldn’t help exclaiming out loud. The sandwich is beyond magnificent, and the challenge of reproducing a facsimile of the hero in an unfamiliar neighborhood has been met with flying colors. Can this new joint succeed in this neighborhood of iffy food? Don’t wait to find out — grab this sandwich immediately. At $9.95, it’s pricey, but one sandwich with a side of slaw easily feeds two. 261 Third Avenue, 212-614-1500