Bensonhurst is fecund terrain for both d-list fame and hardscrabble scandal. Joey Fatone grew up here. So did Marissa Tomei. Solidly Italian for the past century, in the 80’s the area came to notoriety through a link to “the Teflon Don” John Gotti—a car bomb exploded on 86th street with Gotti as the intended mark. In the early 90s, the Reverend Al Sharpton was attacked and stabbed in the chest while he was leading a protest through the neighborhood.
Like Arthur Ave., Bensonhurst prevails as one of the last distinctly Italian regions in the city. Unlike other touristy areas, this neighborhood performs strictly for itself—rich in a sort of earnest pride, undiluted by irony, fully embracing its garishness. Flags on the sidewalks wave brazen and brash, serve as gatekeepers for record stores, pastry shops, and ravioli artisans.
SAS Italian Records makes its presence known blocks away. It sounds like a parade mixed with a tornado drill siren on a loop. SAS acts as part cultural embassy (it imports countless records and tapes, in addition to Italian shave creams and body washes) part kitchen supply resale shop, part bocce uniform outfitter. Looking over the sparkly porcelain masks and cherubic Jesus mini-statues, I instantly understood my Grandmother’s early adoption of Precious Moments figurines. There is literally no accounting for (or, perhaps, genetic resistance to) taste.
One wall of the store is completely covered in little horns—as keychains, as necklaces, as review-mirror ornaments. Yes, little horns, also known as cornicello (or corno, or cornuto) symbolize virility in Italian and Italian-American culture. Originally linked to the horns of pagan moon goddesses, and later the Virgin Mary, the cornicello is the epitome of Italian bling culture. According to lore, these horns protect against the “evil eye” which harms “nursing mothers and their babies, bearing fruit trees, milking animals, and the sperm of men — the forces of generation.” My father, I am told, proudly donned a cornuto ‘neath, or entwined with, his tufts of chest hair in the open-collared 70s.
On closer appraisal:
Elena identified with the wooden soldiers (we think?) featured in the window.
At Queen Anne’s Ravioli Shop, I finally uncovered the mystery of the home-ripened fetus-looking cheese!
“Scamozza” is a dried mozzarella, with a more robust flavor, and a slightly harder tooth. After drying for about 24 hours, the cheese resembles the low-moisture part-skim mozz we might find in the grocery store, thereafter, the cheese comes closer to percorino or parmesan in texture.
Off for sweets. Villabate Alba Bakery has marzipan down to an art form: the craftsmanship looked more like model planes than sugar and ground almonds.
We acquired a neopolitan crème, cannolli, pignolli and fennel-seed “S” biscuits, and hunkered down with cappuccino at Bensonhurst’s old man social club. There we overhead resigned husbands trade horror stories about their wives, challenge each other to pugnacious rounds of bocce later in the afternoon.
Bensonhurst is roughly bordered by 13th-20th avenues, 63rd-86th streets in South Brooklyn near Coney Island.