My quest to see 200 species of birds in New York City in 2016 has taken me into some corners of Brooklyn I’d inexplicably neglected over my three years here. Gravesend, Sheepshead Bay, Marine Park, Canarsie . . . these are my new stomping grounds.
And eating grounds, too.
I’ve become especially fond of Avenue U – not just because the Salt Marsh Nature Center at Marine Park is a great place to see peregrines and pipits and the stray Eurasian wigeon, but also for its chow. Working your way east from McDonald to Flatbush (on foot or via my new-favorite bus, the B3), old-school Italian gives way to kosher gives way to outposts of assorted former-Soviet republics (as well as one place that stubbornly offers up “authentic Soviet cuisine”) mixed in with Vietnamese and Chinese and Mexican and Turkish.
This is the kind of street where a Chinese bakery advertises sticky rice “tamales” and where an Azeri bakery decorates cakes for christenings and bar/bat mitzvahs.
Where better to start an eating tour of Avenue U than at “Joe’s of Avenue U,” which has incorporated the avenue into its name?
The food here is hardcore Sicilian. (By “hardcore,” I mean that if you are craving vastedda, you’ve come to the right place.) To enter the restaurant’s dining room, you must first walk past a long counter of prepared foods – baked clams festooned with parsley, giant artichokes spilling their breadcrumb filling, eggplant and peppers melting into oil. The seafood salad looks like something you’d see while snorkeling off a rocky point in the Mediterranean, its pink and white tentacles waving at you.
The dining room itself – no-nonsense vinyl booths and wood-look laminate tables – is decorated with carved medieval knights, a framed poster with instructions for making limoncello, and a pastoral mural that, by chance or design, is doubled in a mirror on the adjoining wall.
You’ll want to start with the rice ball (while much of the menu is in Sicilian, “rice ball” is the preferred term for arancine here). And while you’re at it, why not upgrade to the rice ball special? For an extra two bucks, your basic meat-and-pea stuffed rice ball will come tricked out with tomato sauce, a dollop of ricotta and an extravagant cascade of shredded cheese. It’s festive and messy, like a savory ice cream sundae.
You’ll want wine, too, of course. Half a carafe of the house white will set you back about as much as a single glass in Park Slope. (“How big is a half carafe?” we asked the waitress. She shrugged – the waitresses here aren’t rude, exactly, but always seem a little surprised that you expect them to wait on you, as opposed to just making yourself at home and wandering into the kitchen to help yourself. “I dunno,” she said. “Three, four glasses. But they’re big glasses.”)
Wine here comes with an ice-filled glass and a spoon, so that you can chill/dilute it to taste. I first learned of this custom from my friend Beth, the granddaughter of one of the Italian immigrants who labored to dig the Cape Cod canal. Her people came from northern Italy, around Bologna, from which I gather that it’s less a Sicilian thing than a poverty thing. Even after her father and uncles climbed into the great Massachusetts middle class, they continued to horrify sommeliers everywhere by ordering an extra glass with their wine, dividing a single pour between the two glasses, and then filling each with water. It was just what you did.
(Even without the ice, we easily got four generous glasses from our half carafe.)
For our meal, Eric and I shared a plate of sarde a beccafico (stuffed sardines) and another of pasta cchi rizzi (linguine with sea urchin). We had to get the sardines, and not only because we both love ’em. In a fitting tribute to my ornithological obsession, this particular dish is named after a bird, the Eurasian garden warbler (or, colloquially, “fig pecker”). Sicilian gentry roasted and ate the bird; common folk roasted and ate this facsimile, in which sardines are wrapped around a filling of bread crumbs, pignoli and currants.
The sea urchin pasta was a “what the hell, why not” kind of order. It came swimming in a thin tomato sauce with plenty of garlic and parsley, the bits of sea urchin tasting both briny and earthy. It made me think of organ meat (which is a good thing, to my mind, but be forewarned). I should add that as much as I like to picture the kitchen staff prying the gonads out of a basket of sea urchins, I suspect these particular specimens came from a can.
As we ate, we listened to the 20-something man at the next table lecture his mother on investment strategies. “Everybody wants to get into tech, but that’s a mistake. The thing is, technology’s always changing, there’s always something new and nobody knows what way it’s gonna go. You don’t wanna deal with that. What you wanna do is buy land. Always buy land. You know why? ’cause God isn’t making any more.”
His words evoked centuries of Sicilian folk wisdom. (They were also, needless to say, horrible advice.)
We finished our meal and settled up at the register, where I took in the photographic shrine to Forza Palermo that dominates the deli/takeout area. The team color is an unabashed pink. There’s something endearing about macho Sicilian football players and their just as macho (if slightly paunchier) Sicilian-American fans rocking pink jerseys and banners.
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