Over the weekend, I was watching an old episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations”. The episode brought Tony to the largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily. Tony meets the former President of Sicily’s regional government, Salvatore Cuffaro, at Antica Focacceria San Francesco in Palermo. This restaurant has been serving up Sicilian specialties since 1884 including pani e panelli (chickpea fritters on a sesame seed roll) and pane ca’ meusa/milza (beef spleen and caciocavallo cheese on a sesame seed roll). Tony and President Cuffaro sample these two Palermitan specialties, which they both seemed to enjoy. The rest of the episode was great, but I could not get milza out of my brain.
So after watching the episode, I posted a status update on my Facebook page asking if anyone knew a place in the New York Tri-State area that served up these Sicilian delights. After a matter of minutes, a friend and fellow foodie, Peter Battaglia (http://blog.afoodobsession.com/), commented on my status. He said there were two spots in Brooklyn that offered the milza. (Note: in Brooklyn, milza is called vastedda.) The first place was Ferdinando’s Focacceria (151 Union Street in Brooklyn, NY). The second was Joe’s of Avenue U (287 Avenue U also in Brooklyn). I knew that a visit to Brooklyn was in my future, namely sometime on Wednesday.
So early yesterday afternoon, my wife, my pal and gelato maestro Giorgio Klinar and I began our trek into Brooklyn on a Sicilian food adventure. We had our hearts set on trying Ferdinando’s Focacceria on this trip. However, when we pulled up to 151 Union Street, we saw that the shutters were drawn. There was a handwritten cardboard sign that read “On Vacation: August 15 – August 22”. We were beat but not defeated. I suggested we put Ferdinando’s on the back burner until they came back from vacation and, instead, head to Joe’s of Avenue U. We drove the 15 minutes from Union Street in Carroll Gardens to Avenue U in Gravesend.
We made a right onto Avenue U off McDonald Parkway and pulled in front of Joe’s of Avenue U. From the façade, Joe’s reminded me a bit of a diner. Once we walked inside, the smells and sights transported us to Sicily. The first thing we saw upon entering is a long, glass enclosed steam table loaded with Sicilian specialties. We were greeted by a friendly, young man and escorted to a table.
Our waitress introduced herself. She presented us with our menus, which doubled as our placemats. The menu was quite extensive and included many items that I was eager to get my teeth on. The waitress took our drink order as we perused the menu. Giorgio & I both went with the Manhattan Specials, which are espresso coffee sodas. My wife went with a glass of water. The waitress promptly brought our drinks, and we began to order our Palermitan feast. We ordered two arancine (rice balls), sardi a beccafico (stuffed sardines), a stuffed artichoke, trippa olivetana (a dish of tripe or cow stomach with peas and potatoes in a tomato sauce), pani e panelli (chickpea fritter sandwich with ricotta and grated cheese) and, the reason for our visit, vastedda (beef spleen sandwich with ricotta and grated cheese).
After a matter of minutes, and some small talk among friends, the procession of food began. The first dish brought before us was the trippa olivetana. Tripe is the lining from 1 one of the three stomachs of a cow. The tripe that we sampled was honeycombed, which means it is from the rumen or the cow’s second stomach. As I’m sure you know by now, I’m an offal lover. I enjoy eating the parts of an animal that many people shun. Anyway, the tripe was tender. It has a tendency to be chewy if not properly prepared. It should be boiled for a long time to tenderize, as well, as clean it. The sauce was sweet from the peas and little starchy from the potatoes. A very nice dish overall.
I moved on from the tripe to the arancina. An arancina is a deep fried rice ball stuffed with peas, cheese and tomatoes. These arancine (plural) were tasty. The exterior of the arancina was crispy, while the interior was moist and oozing goodness. I love the flavor peas give to a dish, and this dish was no exception. This was a well made arancina, one nonna would be proud of.
To me a stuffed artichoke is just that. The stuffing becomes more of a star than the artichoke. I am not a big fan of these Italian-American mainstays. I would much rather prefer artichokes in pasta, baked or grilled then dip the leaves in extra virgin olive oil and herbs or even fried. Don’t get me wrong this stuffed artichoke was good, but on the other hand a dish I could live without.
I was also a little disappointed with the sardi a beccafico. This dish comprised of rolled and stuffed sardines. These particular sardines were loaded with bones, which interfered with the flavor of the stuffing and the fish. I was concentrating more avoiding the bones than how the dish as a whole tasted. Eating the stuffing separate from the sardine was a better route. The stuffing, itself, was enjoyable. I loved the addition of pignoli nuts and raisins, two quintessential Sicilian flavors.
The next two dishes were the highlight of my afternoon, pani e panelli and vastedda. Both were served exactly the same way, with fresh, creamy ricotta and grated cheese on a crusty sesame seed roll. The panelli (chickpea fritters) were thin and fried to perfection. The chickpea flour lent the flavor of chicken to the sandwich. Even though the fritters were thin, they were piled high on the sandwich. I am familiar with panelli and have eaten it in the past. This was definitely a heavyweight contender for some of the best I’ve eaten.
The vastedda was a homerun. I was happy we drove all the way from Jersey to devour this Palermitan delicacy in Brooklyn. As I mentioned previously, vastedda is beef spleen. Again, this plays to my taste for offal. The spleen is an organ that filters the red blood cells and recycles iron. Yes, even, we humans have one. Some internal organs of animals, namely the liver and kidneys, sometimes have an iron-y taste. Interestingly enough, this organ which recycles iron tasted nothing of the sort. In fact, it tasted beefy. It actually reminded me more like tongue only a lot more tender. What an unbelievable sandwich this was. And it was amazing to see all the people around us who were also partaking in our spleen eating ecstasy.
We ended our meal with a couple of shots of espresso, as well as a few cannoli and ravioli fritti stuffed with chocolate and ricotta. These were a nice end to our gluttonous feast.
We left Joe’s of Avenue U feeling happy and very full. If you go to Joe’s of Avenue U for only one dish, let it be the vastedda. Like I said, it was worth the trek. After trying these Palermitan specialties, I cannot wait to try Ferdinando’s Focacceria. Even better, I can’t wait to book my next trip to bella Sicilia and in particular the city of Palermo. Enjoy!
Joe’s of Avenue U
287 Avenue U
(between Lake St & Mcdonald Ave)
Brooklyn, NY 11223
Phone: (718) 449-9285
Living to eat,