Spleen on a Bun

19 Oct

Rick was the last of us to make a pick during our first go round in this still experimental food group. His choice was a convenient restaurant close to his then apartment in Carroll Gardens called Ferdinando’s Focacceria. This was in 2002 and at the time I had no idea of the burgeoning gentrification and real estate boom that was happening in that neighborhood. I’m not sure Rick was even aware of it even while he was living in the midst of the boom. Looking back, the changing clientele in the restaurant at the time was a tip off though it was really just the start. Within a few years, townhouses that were owned for generations of mostly Italian Americans were being gobbled up for astronomical sums…and still are. The upward creeping prices at the ancient restaurant should have also been an indication. My recording of that meal in the fall of 2002 follows:

Ferdinando’s Focacceria
151 Union Street

The red flags went up soon after I sat down at Ferdinando’s Focacceria Ristorante on Union Street in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn. Just a short walk from Rick’s apartment, Ferdinando’s was his pick, the last of our first go-round at this food adventure thing. The red flags were up because of what I noticed on the restaurant’s ancient (circa 1904) brick walls; plaques with a commendation from Zagat and another with a printed review by Eric Asimov of the New York Times in the $25 and under column he used to write. His review of Ferdinando’s appeared in 1993 when $25 and under went a longer way than $25 and under does now. And anyway, our aim wasn’t $25 and under, it was $20 and under. And commendations from popular guides like Zagat and of course from the Newspaper of Record meant that this was far from an “under the radar” establishment. Okay, so every place we go to can’t be a discovery, but could we at least be not too far off? I guess if you’ve been around since 1904 that’s pretty hard to do.

I’m mainly familiar with Carroll Gardens through Rick and the abundant barbecues he holds in his backyard. Whenever I visited, I’d see the old school Italian-Americans sitting in their rickety lawn chairs in front of their brownstones. These were the people, Rick claimed, who were the clientele of Ferdinando’s and that’s how he sold it. But on this Friday evening, the restaurant was inhabited not by those I used to see sitting on those lawn chairs on summer evenings. The diners at Ferdinando’s were more like the six (myself included) who waddled in from somewhere else. In other words, Ferdinando’s, like the neighborhood, was getting seriously gentrified. So because it had already been discovered by the New York Times and Zagat, and despite what looked like an intriguing menu, I was wary that Ferdinando’s might not pass the somewhat stringent and purposely vague criteria we had set for ourselves.

I confess as never having visited a focacceria and was unsure of what it was. I knew of foccacia and assumed Ferdinando’s specialized in typical focaccia, maybe with a brush of fresh tomato on top, or a sprinkling of olive oil and herbs. Ferdinando’s focaccia wasn’t quite typical. Rick recommended the “panelle” special so we had a few brought to the table. These “focaccia” were more like buns, made with chick pea flour and deep fried; the special was topped with ricotta and grated cheese. We also indulged on other of the smaller Sicilian specialties such as the “arancina,” a rice ball deep fried with chopped meat, peas and sauce, and an incredible “caponatina,” the famed Sicilian eggplant salad. No one, not even the adventurous Zio tried the “vastedda,” a sandwich made with calf’s spleen, ricotta and grated cheese. Zio, however, did not disappoint by quickly and decisively ordering his entrée of “trippa,” tripe stewed in tomato sauce with peas. Eugene was also very resolute when he ordered another Sicilian specialty, pasta con sarde, pasta with sardines, fennel, and pine nuts. Rounding out the orders were Rick with the pedestrian pasta con vongole, Gerry with linguini con seppia (squid in its ink), Charlie with the downright lame, chicken parmigiana and rigatoni, and myself with one of the specials of the day, pasta with baby polpo (octopus). As if that were not quite enough, Rick thought we should also try the calamari ripieni, stuffed calamari with mussels. The beverage of choice for most of us was the Italian beer, Peroni.



We soon finished off our appetizers and, while waiting for our entrees, devoured the endless baskets of fresh unadorned focaccia. Rick had noticed the diners as I had and a bit nervously assured me that whenever he had visited Ferdinando’s in the past, usually for lunch—the restaurant is only open until 9 on Fridays and Saturdays—that the locals; specifically, the old timers, were the only diners, not the gentrified groups we were seeing on this night. By then, though, I was no longer aware of the diners, only the food in front of me. The baby polpo on my linguini was perfectly tender, the sauce, sort of a sweet and sour sauce, maybe a bit too sweet for me. Zio’s “trippa” appeared hearty; the white lining of cow’s intestine swimming in tomato sauce.  And for some reason, with the exception of the courageous Gerry, he had no volunteers for samples. I was curious about Eugene’s pasta con sarde, but by the time I got around to asking for a taste, it was gone; Eugene enthusiastically proclaiming its virtues. Finally came the stuffed calamari and though Zio had previously and rancorously announced that he never ate anything “stuffed,” he relented and tried the calamari, which, filled with bread crumbs, garlic and herbs, he grudgingly acknowledged that it was “damn good for something stuffed.”

With the dry focaccia we cleaned the sauces on all our dishes reserving, incredibly, a bit of room for a cannoli sampling. This simple, classic Italian pastry was also worth noting for its perfection; the shell fresh, the cheese spectacular. Finally finished, our check was brought to the table. In the scrawl on a tiny piece of paper, Rick knew we had gone over our “budget.” Eugene did the math and the damage was $36 per person. It wasn’t as bad as it seemed at first glance. There were empty bottles of Peroni littering our table and drinks do not factor into our price limit, so that reduced the total somewhat. Add in the stuffed calamari extra and we were really only about three or four dollars over the $20 allowance. Rick did not meet the criteria. Not only did he not factor in our gluttony, had he read the Zagat review, he would have known that the total figured within that book was $22. Asimov’s $25 and Under review was another tip. Rick obviously just did not do his research. Not that I, or any of us were complaining

Looking back on our experience at Ferdinando’s, I’m very surprised no one had the courage to try the spleen. I think we were all a little raw at this and did not want to test our limits too much. That changed as the group evolved.  I  did revisit Ferdinando’s. It was probably in 2007 at the height of the real estate boom in Brooklyn. My experience was not as positive; the food not as good as I remembered from the above visit and prices had climbed so much that it was hard to imagine any of the old timers from the neighborhood (if any still remained) spending much time at Ferdinandos…even for lunch. Carroll Gardens was a much different place. Even Rick had fled.

2 Responses to “Spleen on a Bun”

  1. James lax October 19, 2010 at 11:49 am #

    Enjoyed this one immensely as I am not exposed to much authentic Italian fare down here in sunny FLA… Once, more, loved the intro and the retrospect… Damn good writing ! Have you compiled all these vignettes into book form yet ? Would make for a great read ! I can take 3 copies for openers !

  2. BSS October 19, 2010 at 11:56 am #


    Come on up and I’ll treat you to some spleen.


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