Brooklyn Dispatch: The King and I, Over a Centenarian Sandwich

MHT Ferdinando's Focacceria

Ferdinando’s Foccaceria: Home of the Spleen Sandwich, Not Quite A City Classic, But There’s Always Hope.

Between the stevedores that still populate the easternmost coast of Brooklyn’s Columbia Waterfront District (a sliver of a waterfront hood formerly known as northern Red Hook) and the nearly always-rush hour traffic of the BQE sits a centenarian Italian joint called Ferdinando’s Foccaceria.

Francesco Buffa, the Sicily-born chef and owner, grew up cooking his childhood chow, like the street food favorite vastedda (spleen served with ricotta and a sprinkle of pecorino Romano, all stuffed between fresh focaccia), and naturally turned his passion for his cuisine into a local eatery.

Coincidentally in 1906, two years after Ferdinando’s opened at 151 Union Street, another native Sicilian named Salvatore Lupo christened a storefront in New Orleans called Central Grocery, and put a “muffoletta” on its first menu. (Originally a small snacky sandwich filled with cold cuts, cheese, and Italian giardiniera, or mixed pickled vegetables, New Orleans Americanized the muffoletta by making it massive in size and changing the name to mufuletta.)

Both sandwiches come from their humble beginnings in Palermo, but why has one come to define the cuisine of a city, when the other is just another another Brooklyn neighborhood nibble? Demographically speaking, New York’s food scene is really, truly a melting pot: You can find an array of cuisines being cooked by an even larger gamut of ethnicities. Still, the truest food comes from the people that were nurtured on it, right?

These thoughts came to mind when I recently met Manhattan and Brooklyn chef King Phojanakong for lunch at the anachronistic Ferdinando’s. King, shown below, is the chef and owner of Kuma Inn in Manhattan’s Lower East Side (it’s at 113 Ludlow Street), and the newly launched Umi Nom at 433 Dekalb Avenue near near Pratt University, on the borders of Brooklyn’s Fort Greene and Clinton Hill neighborhoods.

EM3JanFeb09ChinatownWithChefKingPhojanakong(2)

We ordered the arancina special, a breaded rice ball filled with a brawny amount of chopped meat and peas, fried to a crispy blond shade and topped with just enough red sauce to fill the plate. The chickpea panelle (that’s a chickpea flour fritter) sandwich was also brilliantly fried, but it was then topped with a spoonful of ricotta and grated cheese and nestled ever so gently in focaccia.

We also had the pasta con sarde, a straightforward spaghetti noodle, but with a foreign-to-me flavor combination of sardines with wild fennel, pignoli (Italian for pine nuts), raisin and spices. Why did we choose this somewhat odd dish (at least to us)? Well, it seemed the most authentic I suppose, but even though we cleared the plate, I don’t think either of us got it. Lost in translation?

Maybe: King’s Thai/Filipino background is the basis for his Asian tapas at his restaurants, but he also has French techniques  by way of working under chefs Daniel Boulud and David Bouley. When I first met King years ago, he had just been included in a cookbook of Asian chefs, but I’ve never thought of him as cooking “Asian” food. I crave the dish of Chinese sausage with sticky rice and kalamansi lime chili dipping sauce he serves at Kuma Inn, and the pork belly adobo sandwich with a side of beef tapa jerky you can get to go at Umi Nom.

I didn’t grow up on this fare, nor did the majority of the community surrounding his restaurants, so why serve such food, in such communities? Growing up in Stuyvesant Town, King and often journeyed down to Chinatown for his meals, and since becoming a chef, he has emulated those taste memories and employs those same streets as his marketplace for his ingredients–in fact he took us along on a shopping trip for our  Winter 2009 issue. (You can see the map of his recommendations from the story here.)

So this got me thinking, who were the first adventurous cross-cultural eaters, and why did they choose to feast outside their upbringing? And alternatively, what makes a food truly belong to a community, whether it got it’s start there or not? Though most of the time, I’m often just glad for a tasty sandwich.

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Michael Harlan Turkell

Michael Harlan Turkell is a former photo editor of Edible Brooklyn, who walked the borough in sights of cultural cuisine at its best. Now he travels the world doing the same, bringing these ideas and foods to light as a photographer.