It was long past embarrassing – approaching shameful – to have lived in Brooklyn for the better part of a decade without once crossing the threshold of Defonte’s Sandwich Shop. I have no excuse: not ignorance (Defonte’s was a favorite of the old Outer Boroughs Chowhound board, which I used to read avidly); not convenience (it’s a bit out of the way, but I run and bike close by often enough); not lack of hunger (obviously).
Yesterday, at last, I remedied that.
Defonte’s opened in 1922 in Red Hook – though the southern Italian immigrants who worked loading and unloading ships along the industrial waterfront mostly called it South Brooklyn, or just plain Brooklyn. The original owner, Nick Defonte, was an immigrant from the town of Mola di Bari who bought the store on Columbia Street for $100. A century later, Defontes still run Defonte’s – including a glitzier Staten Island outpost that continues the Italian-American journey.
Defonte’s is much easier to find when you’re not trying to find it – or so it seemed to me yesterday. I’ve made note of its green-and red-facade many times. To actually get there, though, proved challenging. It’s not enough to cross the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, navigating the limited number of pedestrian bridges or dashing across impossibly wide and confusing tangles of through-streets, dead ends, and ramps. Once you’ve gone over or under the BQE, you must make your way to the point at which Columbia St is interrupted by the maw of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. Go a block too far, or a block not far enough, and you’ll confront a no-go zone.
Neither the expressway nor the tunnel existed when Defonte’s opened, of course, making its survival a small miracle.
When I finally got there – after several detours and a bit of doubling back – it was close to noon, and the place was packed. Another customer casually mentioned that the lunch rush was nothing compared with pre-pandemic times. But though it looks chaotic, it works. There are a bunch of experienced sandwich makers on the other side of that long counter, and they are fast and no-nonsense and will take good care of you. The system, I discovered, is more or less this: once you’ve decided on your order, just approach the counter. Eventually one of the sandwich makers will ask, “who’s next?,” no one else will answer, and you will realize that it’s your turn. Give your order, step back, and your sandwich maker will call out to you – or just catch your eye and gesture – when it’s time to collect your (wrapped, bagged) sandwich and pay.
It’s the deciding on your order part that’s tough, as Defonte’s sandwich menu is crazy extensive. I spent some time outside studying the options on the window, including a few memorializing friends, family and customers – a poignant and lovely custom, for who among us wouldn’t want to live on as a sandwich? I know I would! Just be aware that still more choices festoon the walls and counter inside – including the roast beef, mozzarella and eggplant number beloved of Robert Sietsema over at Eater. That was my order, too, with the addition of some spicy salad.
How big are Defonte’s sandwiches? The 1/2 size fit comfortably in the basket of a Citibike, but without a great deal of room to spare.
Back home, I measured it (poor Eric, you’re thinking, forced to wait for his lunch through my shenanigans – but he’s used to it). I had to use a vintage yardstick.
But let’s cut to the chase: how was it? Let’s just say there’s a very good Italian deli just down the street to which I feel a certain loyalty, especially when it comes to mozzarella and ricotta – but Defonte’s blows its sandwiches out of the water. Juicy roast beef; bread capable of withstanding 20 minutes of walking/running/biking; thinly-sliced eggplant fried to shattering crispness. It was the eggplant that stole the show, in my opinion, and it figures prominently in my future ordering plans. (Roast pork with broccoli rabe, provolone, and that eggplant? Go all-in with eggplant parm? Or maybe a reprise of the roast beef sandwich, except with hot cherry peppers instead of the salad?)
Because, for sure, I’ll be back.