By Neil D. Garguilo
In my slice of Little Italy (aka Williamsburg, Brooklyn) in the 1960’s and 1970’s we had everything at our fingertips when it came to food. Everything was in a 5 block radius from our homes and mostly was within 2 blocks. Oh, and the food was so good…When you leave this time and place it becomes increasingly difficult to find these food places such as butchers, bakers and fish mongers. But, lucky me I found one 2 miles away from my home nestled into a little mall. Its name is Tuscany Marketplace. I will compare and contrast this new wonderful place with my hometown memories of delight.
Let’s start off with the private butchers. We had several, with one on the corner and one around the corner. There were two others on Metropolitan Avenue, a mere 2 blocks away from my home. The meat sold by these butchers were just better than the stuff we get in the supermarkets today. I am not sure if the meat was USDA choice or a cut above choice. I doubt it would be prime due to cost. And, speaking of cost, the meat by comparison to today was lower in price when comparing “apples to apples” so to speak. I have a fondness for butcher markets since I worked for several for about 5 years in my youth, mostly delivering the meat the customers ordered. This was a great service since you knew the butchers for years and trusted them. A little tip and you could have your sirloin steak without leaving your home. These places were quaint and friendly with saw dust thrown on the floor so you wouldn’t slip. The meats were neatly displayed in the refrigerator and looked “so fresh.” Some of the butcher names I remember fondly were Phil, Rex, and Nicky.
Now let’s switch to grocery stores. Did you say “around the corner?” Yes, it was called Anthony’s, after the son’s name. The parents were Italian immigrants and I remember them so well. They were nice and hard working. Although I must add that the mother and son argued a lot. It was part of the lore of the store. You had all the ingredients you needed for that sirloin steak you just bought: potatoes, lettuce, and Italian bread. Then there were the cans of tomato, paste, canned veggies, detergent, soap and paper goods including toilet paper. And, it was all in a very tiny store! At Anthony’s you could also get a wonderful sandwich made for lunchtime. I remember seeing his helper make a tuna sandwich on Italian bread with imported Pastene tuna. He cut open most of the loaf, poured the can of tuna olive oil on one side of the bread and smashed the tuna directly from the can onto the same side of the oil. He then took mayonnaise and spread it on the other side of the bread and for the “topping on the cake” he sliced a red onion and placed it on the tuna. WOW! Delicious…There were many other grocery stores throughout the neighborhood which are too many to mention here except one: Tedone’s. She was the aunt of my childhood friend and made the best fresh mozzarella in the whole damn world! She worked her little store on Metropolitan Avenue for years. Such longevity…
The trek for a great fish place was not too long– about 5 blocks. It was called the Grand Street Fish Market and it was the best in the whole neighborhood. It was spanking clean with loads of fish. I remember as if it was yesterday my mother taking me to “get some fresh fish.” I liked going to this store. Reason? There was the heavy set owner with a white apron on…he wore black rimmed glasses and had a black 2 day old beard. But that is not the reason. It was his delicious deep fried French Fries. “To die for”…he had the potatoes cut thick and then he would swoosh them into the deep fry basket and in a few minutes you’d have your fries. He would throw them into a brown bag and add plenty of salt with his silver shaker. Mmmm…the bags were greasy with oil spots but who cared when you were a kid. I think he also deep fried shrimp and clams for the adults. When mom made fresh flounder I ate it!
Now, onto the vegetable store. We had one on Metropolitan Avenue and one on Graham Avenue. I think Grand Street had one too. But they all sold the most fresh veggies of all kinds. As I grew up, my mother would take her weekly bus trip to Greenpoint to shop. The vegetable stands were run by Korean families and they too sold fresh vegetables of all kinds. I liked to go to Greenpoint since it bustled with activity with all the blocks of stores selling everything from appliances to clothing to food, etc. Of course, mom took me to the Manhattan Triple Decker for their famous 3 tiered sandwiches. Breathless…
Let me not forget these two other areas of gastronomic pleasures: the pork store and the bakery. The pork store was truly unique. It was one block away on Lorimer Street and was run by an immigrant Italian husband and wife team. Their sausages were the best in the world (well, my small world) and made fresh daily. I remember being in the store and seeing all the hanging ceiling cheese, aging as the days went by. The store was always clean and spotless. And the owners looked like they worked so hard. God bless them.
Last on the list were the bakeries. I will highlight two. The first one was on Jackson Street and Graham Avenue and it was a German-run bakery called the Withers Street Bakery. Oh, the German apple pie was just too delicious. It had a marbled white/black glazed top with scrumptious apples that I can taste right now. It was worth the four block walk. The other bakery was very famous. It was called DeLuca’s and was located on Havemeyer Street. This family really knew how to bake. I remember mom sending me for the St. Joseph’s Pastries (Zeppole di San Giuseppe) every year on March 19th. They would make the filling two ways like most Italian bakeries do, one with cannoli cream and the other with silky custard cream. My mom taught me to remember each St. Joseph’s day because my grandmother name was Josephine and my father’s middle name was Joseph. Momma, I still do…love you all in heaven.
Before we leave my old neighborhood, I would be remiss not to mention some famous beverages. One classic was the Manhattan Special made and located on Manhattan Street, of course. It was pure expresso coffee soda in a unique glass 12 oz. bottle. It was strong but “oh so good.” The other famous drink is out of business. It was called Kist Soda Pop. The flavors were so good. There were orange, peach, pineapple, lemon lime, grape, and cream soda. For 15 cents you got 12 oz. in a nice glass bottle. We went to our friend’s father’s beverage distributorship on Withers Street to obtain these classics on hot summer days after some street games like punch ball. What fun! By the way, both companies distributing these thirst quenches were owned and operated by Italian-Americans.
That was then; this is NOW. What is a boy from Brooklyn to do to find great food? Well, well… welcome to “A Taste of Paradise” in Marlboro, NJ called Tuscany Marketplace! I found my nirvana and favorite place to obtain my Italian food desires. It is a multi-faceted store snuggled in a little mall literally 2 miles down the road from my home. For New Jersey, that is considered “close.” The story goes something like this on Sunday morning. My wife says: “Neil, we need to watch our diet. Let’s have a salad with slices of chicken and avocado.” My first reply was “sure” but later in the morning I am overcome with Italian Family Dinner pangs resulting in me saying: “My love, for old time sake, can we go to Tuscany and get some sauce, meatballs, twisted Italian bread and some pastries?” And off we go smiling all the way to my special place.
Yes, Tuscany has everything including a wonderful butcher shop to fine fruits and vegetables to an outstanding bakery. You can also get fish but only prepared Italian style. Please don’t forget their great deli and those sandwiches he makes—oh, WOW…….are they good. He has a list of over 42 sandwiches made on regular Italian bread (12”) or signature panini and wraps. When I visit my sister I bring her a sandwich which we share for lunch (yes, they are that big). We are now working our way down the list and hope to try all the sandwiches by the fall.
Here is a place where you do get Prime cuts of meat. The display is inviting. The big Tomahawk Steaks make your mouth water. Then, for Sunday, I always stop buy for the bracioles—one beef and one pork. Mmmmm…
It is funny that one of the owners is Anthony (like my boyhood grocer’s son). The other is his father Vinny. They are both hard working Italian-Americans with a great business sense. They are very innovative and present the food in a logical and tasty way. They have great customer rapport too. And all their employees seem happy since they are all so helpful. May God bless them all.
Now, let’s get back to the food. When my mother was alive and living with us a few short years ago she would always ensure we had daily fresh Italian bread. Momma would say to my wife: “Denise, please remind Neilly Boy to pick up some bread on his way home from work.” Sure as the sun rises I used to get a call late in the afternoon from my wife to remind me: “bread.” On my way home from work I would pass my favorite store and pick up some delicious Italian bread. Sometimes I got lucky and it was warm. Momma was so happy eating this bread. Her dentures would rattle as I laughed that she was “gnawing” at the bread. By the way, I gained 10 pounds while she was living with us!
Next to the bread section are the bake goods. I can’t stand it! So good! All types of cookies, pastries, pies and cake including my favorite, Italian Cheese Cake. Oh, those rainbow cookies, those pignoli cookies, those macaroons, those pistachio cookies, those, those, those, etc. Let’s not forget the pastries like those delicious cannoli, napoleons, sfogliatelle, etc. I see I am gaining weight again.
Their deli section is always jammed. We now have to take a number from the ticket machine. Hard working people don’t have to worry since you can get a home cooked meal here at the counter. There is everything you could want. All the Italian specialties like eggplant any way you want (e.g. parmigiana, rollatini, etc.), chicken Marsala, meatballs, stuffed flounder Florentine, and all sorts of pasta dishes I can’t name here since the list is too long. Then, there are the other wonderful deli items like homemade potato salad, macaroni salad, coleslaw and all sorts of delectable food stuff. Do not forget their unusual food offerings like a pastrami or corn beef stuffed knish (Mmmm) and egg rolls stuffed with Italian treats like eggplant. WOW! And they cater too. Plus, they carry Manhattan Special Expresso Coffee Soda! What more can a guy ask for…
Next up is a pizza joint called Molto! It is ready to open soon and I can’t wait. I bet it will remind me of Brooklyn Pizza.
So, there you have it. Neil found his food haven in New Jersey thanks to this fine establishment called Tuscany. The saying goes and I paraphrase: “You can take the boy out of Brooklyn, but you can’t take the Brooklyn out of the boy.” Thank you Tuscany for a taste of paradise. Thanks, too, to all the store owners of my youth who have given me lasting memories.
About the Author:
Neil D. Garguilo is a retired manager who spent a good portion of his life working for well-known companies like FedEx and Hertz.
In his retirement, he loves to write about growing up Italian in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY. He is part of the Italian Sons and Daughter of America (ISDA) and writes articles for their newspaper, La Nostra Voce. Other interests are travel, reading, exercise and helping others.
3 thoughts on “Italian Neighborhoods -A Taste of Paradise”
Outstanding blog about everything Italian American in old neighborhoods – Congratulations Neil Garguilo for a great blog!
I could envision the neighborhood, thank you for the trip and will look for Tuscany Marketplace. Really enjoyed reading, Thank you!
Now I’m hungry! ;0)