A Family Affair – Sicily in Brooklyn
When you enter Ferdinando’s Focacceria, you are sure to encounter owner Francesco ‘Frank’ Buffa, a slight, silver-haired Sicilian, engaged in light conversation with a neighbor or friend, or even the owner of the French café on the opposite corner of Union Street.
“I have no competition,” Frank explains, matter-of-factly.
He doesn’t boast; rather, he plainly acknowledges that nearby eateries pose no threat to a 110-year-old business, the original façade and interior of which are so well maintained that vintage photographs are hardly distinguishable from newer ones, save for their faded quality. The restaurant’s narrow, wooden double doors remain, as do many other original details – its tin ceiling, tile floor and brick walls among them. A hand-painted, ceramic wine jug, or “amphora,” colorfully depicting a traditional Sicilian dance scene, sits atop the front counter and puts visitors in the mind of 1904, the year Buffa’s father-in-law, Ferdinando, first opened the Sicilian eatery in what was then known as South Brooklyn.
Mellifluous music – namely “Speak Softly Love (Love Theme from “The Godfather”) – plays softly in the background. The restaurant is a rare specimen: it’s a remnant of another era that’s retained its vitality and popularity by remaining the same. Buffa’s simple formula – to satisfy customers by preserving the restaurant’s unpretentious food and atmosphere – has stood the test of time.
“My customers are my boss,” he says in Italian-cadenced English. “They tell me what to do.”
Ferdinando’s under-the-radar location on the west side of the BQE at Union and Hicks streets doesn’t deter patrons; tourists from all over the world flock to the locale, which serves traditional, Sicilian fare for lunch and dinner, six days a week, thanks to regular, favorable press and ubiquitous mentions in local guidebooks – a result of the accrual of positive word of mouth over the years.
“It’s a well-known business,” Buffa explains. “We have people from Germany, Japan and Australia.”
Buffa notes, with pleasure, that he’s been featured recently by the Travel Channel, the Cooking Channel and NYC life. Press clippings adorn the walls, including a 2001 New York Magazine feature advising New York City Marathon runners to carbo-load on pasta and sandwiches. Photographs of celebrity diners hang in their company, too, as Leonardo DiCaprio, Sean Penn, Pierce Brosnan and Martin Scorsese have all visited over the years.
“When they film in the area and ask where’s the right place to go, they’re told this is the place,” Buffa says.
Tucked away near a sunny window that looks out onto Union Street is a black-and-white photograph of a youthful, athletic Buffa, performing a goalkeeper’s dive, which has rightfully earned a spot on the celebrity wall.
The “panelle sandwich” and its subtle variations are customers’ undisputed favorite items – a point on which Buffa prides himself.
“It’s what we started with and we’re famous for it,” he says.
Three deep-fried chickpea fritters come topped with copious ricotta and Pecorino-Romano cheese and are served on a house-baked semolina roll. A waitress advises that that the sandwich should be eaten hastily, while the bread is still hot. Buffa explains the laborious process by which the authentic Sicilian specialty is made by hand.
“We use flour, water and salt and cook it, polenta style, for an hour over a flame,” he says. “Then we put it on a wood mold and wait for it to cool.”
The rectangular wood molds resemble hand-carved printmaking blocks and leave custom imprints on the panelle – a flower design, a fish and the restaurant’s logo among them, allowing Buffa to leave a literal mark on the food he serves his dear patrons. It’s worth it, too, he is sure.
According to Buffa, “Anyone who tries the panelle comes back.”
Other specials include a traditional Sicilian spleen sandwich that, according to Buffa, is more particular.
“Whereas 99percent of the people who try the panelle like it, about seven in 10 like the vestadda,” he explains.
Buffa emigrated to Brooklyn from Sicily in 1971, when he was 21 years old. That same year, he met his future wife and began working for her Palermitano father Ferdinando at the now famed Focacceria. When Ferdinando passed away in 1975, the young couple took over of the business. Similarly, Buffa and his wife, who have three sons, will eventually pass down the restaurant to their children, two of whom – David and Christian – already work for their parents. Eternally clad in aprons and T-shirts reading “Ferdinando’s” in script across the chest, they’re poised to organically follow in their father’s footsteps.
Ferdinando’s Focacceria is a relic of Old Brooklyn, with little under its roof having changed in more than a century. A patron approaches Buffa, who rests in front of an antique Singer sewing machine, and prattles about the heirloom.
“We have this sewing machine! I can’t believe I’m seeing all this stuff,” he says.
Before Frank can interject, the patron continues, “I feel like I am home. It’s amazing.”
The restaurant maintains two kitchens, one of which, located near the door, was designed for the front of the restaurant in order to swiftly prepare food to go. Buffa laments the dual kitchen setup, acknowledging that, in an ideal world, he’d now operate a single kitchen rather than two.
“Before, 90 percent of business was takeout. Now, it’s the opposite – 80 percent is inside and 20 percent is takeout. But my customers like the restaurant the way it is, so I’ll leave it,” he says.
Food is prepared in the main kitchen in the back, whereas the front kitchen acts as a sort of presentation area for dishes. Even Buffa’s kitchen configuration, despite any associated inconveniences, remains unchanged in the spirit of preserving memories of days past.
Buffa has, however, made minor adjustments in Ferdinando’s Focacceria’s service and offerings to accommodate an evolved clientele. When he first began working at the restaurant, longshoremen made up the bulk of the customer base; they relied on take-out sandwiches for sustenance at lunchtime and the focacceria did most of its business around midday. A concerted effort was made in the 1970s to adapt to the changing character of the neighborhood. The menu was revised to better suit the influx of young families and professionals that had supplanted the longshoremen. By offering a more robust, family-style dinner menu, Buffa brought in enough business to make up for a slower lunch hour.
“I updated the menu and added more Sicilian food – a pasta dish, some chicken, some veal, fresh mozzarella and cannoli for dessert,” he explains.
Buffa himself is a rarity among restaurateurs, spending 14 hours each day at the restaurant, and customers so rely on his presence that if he absconds to work on his computer, for example, uneasiness ensues. It’s not that the operation is unstable in his absence, but that he invokes a sense of calm continuity that the neighborhood appreciates. And, according to Buffa, it goes both ways.
“I like to know my customers,” he says. “And for me to be here gives the place more of a secure look.”
In contrast to the turnover that many of the area’s residential buildings now see as a result of increasing property values, Buffa has employed the same stable of workers for as long as he can remember.
“The cook has been with me for 15 years. Nobody moves here. We’re like family,” he says.
If Buffa could change one thing, it would be his hours. An easier lunch shift calls for longer workdays and Buffa retreats to his Staten Island home “only for sleeping.”
He doesn’t resent working long days; he’d just like one off every once in a while. After all, the restaurant is, in his own words, his life.
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