A block away from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Letizia Virtuoso plates a tray of still-hot broccoli rabe, saturating the air with the smell of roasted garlic.
“We gotta get some of that,” one customer in workout clothes says to her friend, shortly after Letizia places the Italian greens into the 1970s orange and aluminum deli case that runs the length of the store. It’s just another afternoon inside Graham Avenue Meats and Deli (445 Graham Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-383-0756).
You can find Letizia here seven days a week; she’s usually standing in the back kitchen, located just past the wooden walk-in freezer. She is soft-spoken and shy, and a pencil keeps her bun in place. It’s been a few years since she took a day off, minus Christmas and New Year’s.
Her late husband, Michael Virtuoso, opened Graham Avenue as a butcher shop in May of 1985; after a few years, customers starting asking if sandwiches were a possibility, and, Virtuoso says, “One sandwich led to another.”
Michael came to the States from Naples when he was 12. At 14, he started working in a slaughterhouse at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He was a dedicated man, says Steven Estrada, a Graham employee of more than eight years. “He never took a day off,” he says. “Except one time he did call in and say he ate too much watermelon and couldn’t make it.”
What did Michael do in his free time? Estrada says, smiling, “Not much. He liked to throw down on the grill.”
A little over three years ago, just before the summer of 2012, Michael was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer, and he passed away shortly thereafter. Today, his picture overlooks the store just above the deli case, and his work ethic and skills have been passed along to his employees. “The way we make sandwiches is the way he taught us,” says Eddie Fiametta, another longtime employee. Today, Michael’s son, Jerry, works the store on weekends, and goes to college during the week.
Graham is takeout-only, and it’s known for its butchered meats and sandwiches — it serves about 120 sandwiches per day in-store, and it delivers many more to large companies in Manhattan. The Godfather makes up about 80 percent of those orders: It’s built on a semolina sub roll from Napoli bakery on Metropolitan Avenue, and stacked with roasted red peppers, hot or spicy sopressata or capicola, Parmesan and provolone cheese, vinegar peppers, oil and vinegar, lettuce, tomatoes, and onion. It’s large and daunting, and each employee makes their own slightly differently. “We tend to place our provolone differently on the roll,” says Estrada.
A two-handed operation, it’s spicy, sweet, crunchy, and soft all at once. At $8, it’s enough to hold you over for lunch and dinner.
Graham makes its own roast pork and turkey multiple times a week, so many customers also go for the Cubano Italiano, a Cuban sandwich made with spicy peppers and pressed. One caveat to the list: The sandwiches at Graham Avenue are listed only by title; you have to ask what, exactly, is in each one. “It’s all about trust,” says Fiametta. To a waffling customer, he says, “I got something special for ya, don’t worry.”
This is also an exemplary butcher shop, and the team has expert knowledge of different cuts of meat, wrapping everything from veal to pork to wild game like capon in thick, rust-colored butcher paper. “They have the best steak,” local resident Michael Venezia tells me as they work.
The shop has a loyal following in Williamsburg, and it seems everyone who knows about the store is a regular. “We got one guy that comes six days a week and orders the same chicken cutlet sandwich with dressing on the side,” Estrada says. “Literally, at least six days a week that man is here.” I have one friend whose sister has to have a Godfather every time she flies out of NYC. Seems like an excellent tradition.