On Saturday afternoon, a crowd on Staten Island formed the happy, hungry line stretching down Water Street, outside the latest outpost of Defonte’s (95 Water Street, Staten Island; 718-285-4310). This is the 92-year-old Red Hook sandwich shop’s second attempt at opening across the Verrazano.
“Know where the mall is? We had a store here years ago, in the ’80s,” co-owner Nick Defonte tells us, “but it was a little too early for Staten Island.” Now, he says, many people come over the bridge to Red Hook and are tired of paying the excessive toll. “Brooklyn’s not like it used to be in the ’40s and ’50s. So a lot of people don’t want to pay $16 to come over.”
So the Defontes decided to go to their audience, taking with them the leftover equipment from the Manhattan location, which was shuttered after the lease was bought out to make way for condos. “I had everything, and my brother Phil wanted to go into business,” Defonte says. “The sons have time, and they wanted to make some extra money, so we said we’re going to take a shot.”
That a Manhattan location even existed in the first place was a total fluke. “It was such an accident,” the owner says. “Somebody was mentioning the space in my store — not even speaking to me. Then he came to me a month or two later, said he wasn’t going to use it, and asked if I wanted it. It worked out well. Once Manhattan people got hooked, they were done. It became like a cult — even the nuns. We used to take care of the nuns, too. They were all good people.”
Now Defonte’s committed to the people of Staten Island’s Stapleton neighborhood. “I truly believe a place like this can change this whole neighborhood, its atmosphere, attitude,” he says. “Maybe pizzerias, bagel stores, they’ll say Defonte’s is down there, we can open down there. They’re building 900 condos down the block. Two years from now, it could be like Red Hook.”
Unlike the Manhattan location, Staten Island’s won’t be open on Sundays, despite the fact that Defonte believes his decision to stay open on Sundays during football season made the Manhattan location really special. “Football season was such a boost, holy shit!” he says. “We went from $2,700 to $5,000 a day! People would say, ‘Give me 10 sandwiches, give me 20 sandwiches, people are coming over!’ Football season was a fantastic draw for us, but it was too much. I’m done. I gotta be crazy to do it. Thank the lord I don’t have to.”
The crowds are already massive, though: By 5 p.m. on Saturday, a handwritten sign taped to the locked front door read, “Sorry No Bread.” “Come back Monday,” the owners said.