151 Union St, Brooklyn
Price Range: $10-$25
Look, people have been eating at Ferdinando’s since long before you were born. If you don’t like it there, that’s your problem. This narrow, tile-floored dining room, decorated with faded black-and-white photos, deserves some respect. All their classic Sicilian recipes have withstood the test of time, but some of the best dishes may be the ones you’ve never tasted before.
Your best bet is to sit next to somebody who orders without glancing at the menu and request whatever he’s having. If he’s twice the size of you, divide the amount of food by two. That’s how I stumbled upon my favorite lunch ever — a Manhattan Special ($2) and one Panelle Special with a little sauce ($4.25). It turned out to be a foamy glass mug of coffee soda, which is a million times better out of the fountain than it is from the bottle, and a soft round bun piled with chickpea flour fritters, a mound of fresh ricotta cheese, and sweet homemade tomato sauce. (My well-fed neighbor ordered three of the filling sandwiches, but one is enough for me.)
Of course, the old-neighborhood guy at the next table could also order the vastedda, a tasty local favorite that translates to calf’s spleen and cheese on a roll. Come on, you have to take some chances here. If you ask your waitress for a recommendation, she’ll tell you — somewhat sternly — that everything on the menu is good. Feel free to inquire about the Linguine al Seppia ($13), a pasta dish tossed in a garlicky black squid ink sauce with chunks of a meaty, calamari-like cuttlefish — but only ask if you’re prepared to eat it. As soon as she finishes her description, she’ll jot it down on her notepad, promising that you’ll love it. She won’t steer you wrong.
If you’re really hungry, get the Rice Ball Special (topped with ricotta and sauce), and the Bresaola ($17), which according to The Food Lover’s Companion, should be pronounced “brehsh-ay-OH-lah,” but in my Italian family, we call it “bra-SHOLE” and at Ferdinando’s, they know what I mean. It’s a marinated and cured lean beef fillet, soaked in tomato sauce, and wrapped around fresh breadcrumbs with a kick of oregano — a satisfying stick-to-your-ribs entrée that’s accompanied by a pile of dense and heavy gnocchi. As you scarf it down, you may catch the waitress watching you and smiling, and if you can clean your plate, she’ll pat you on the back as she takes it away.