At just past 8 a.m., the masses of humanity slowly start entering the shop. Mothers on their cell phones, three day-bearded graphic designers, and men in sweat pants and gold chains file in, hungry and in need. It’s a diverse swatch of Brooklyn that goes to Fortunato Brothers (289 Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-387-2281) for a sweet fix, looking for a taste of the familiar.
Located on the corner of a sleepy block just blocks from the Graham Avenue L train, Fortunato has been in business since 1976, shrewdly changing little along the way. Opened by the three Fortunato brothers — Salvatore, Mike, and Mario — the business is still family run, with Salvatore’s son, Viago, now at the helm. It’s far enough away from the well-worn path that you will not find tourists burying their heads in travel guides here.
You will find a substantial base of regulars, some of whom have lived in the neighborhood for a long time. “Our customer base used to be a lot older 20 years ago,” Viagio says. “Unfortunately, a lot of them just aren’t with us anymore.” There always seems to be a few chess matches happening, and there are always, always some dudes hanging just outside the restaurant, leaning up against their cars and talking for hours. Remember that scene in Goodfellas when Karen fights with Henry in the street after he stood her up? These guys might not have the Hollywood looks of Ray Liotta, but it always reminds me of that.
The place is best experienced early in the morning or post-dinner, and it’s open until 11 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on the weekend. This is a really good date spot, especially for post-dinner dessert — it’s fun, it’s old school, and it’s genuine old Brooklyn.
Fortunato does only a few things, and it does most of them quite well. First, the coffee. It’s excellent. You will not find any drip coffee here, but the espresso and cappuccinos are sharp so that you can stay attentive. Whether you drink your morning cup inside at one of many small black tables or on the go, it will rival the offering from any third-wave coffee bar.
But the pastries are, and have always been, the main attraction — and the display would give any diabetic nightmares. Start with the pine nut cookie — “God, that pine nut cookie is the real deal,” said a friend of mine who’s a chef after I dropped a few off. Made with almond paste, the chewy cookie is topped with pine nuts for flavor and texture. The Italian bakery also stocks the classics, from napoleons to two dozen varieties of marzipan, which are formed to look like everything from clams to fruit to what I think was eggplant. But beware — those look better than they taste. Same with the sfogliatelle, which is usually flaky and with a fresh ricotta filling. This version was tough, dry, and a few days too old for my taste. Ask instead for the rarely seen Italian cheesecake, made with ricotta cheese instead of cream cheese.
The showpiece of the Fortunato pastry department is the cannoli, though it’s a polarizing item. “Back in the day, the cannoli was three times the size at one third the price,” part-time regular Peter told me. Today, the cannolis are still good, but the best version can still be found at Caffe Capri, only a few blocks away.
You might skip all of that, though, for the housemade gelato, which I consider a must-have. Skip the everyday flavors and varieties and hone in on the hard-to-find Italian specialty flavors, like the nocciola (hazelnut). Akin to a skinnier cousin of nutella, the gelato is creamy, elegant, and vibrant with flavor. Not a fan of hazelnut? Try a scoop of the zuppa inglessia. Typically a custard based dessert, Fortunato twists the product into gelato, and what a good twist it is. And if fruit is calling your name, try the Fruitti Di Bosco, translated as the “fruit of the forest.” It tastes of the season. Enjoy it while you can.