I used to live on Carroll Street, between Smith and Hoyt. That's right around the corner from Joe's Superette, the deli which closed forever last week after a half a century in business. I was at that address for seven years. And for a few of those years, I would pass right by Joe's nearly every day. I always used to call it "Joe's Perette," because the sign was missing the "U" and it looked like it would never be repaired. (It never was.) It seemed the grubbiest sort of business. The windows went unwashed. The items on the poorly stocked shelves were covered with dust. And there was never anyone in there.
At one point, someone told me the place actually made good sandwiches. So, during a day at home, I braved the place for lunch. It was a died-in-the-wool Italian neighborhood joint. I expected to be intimidated and unwelcomed. But the man behind the counter took my order matter-of-factly, and went about slicing the meats and cheeses I requested for my sandwich. He wasn't exactly warm and friendly, but neither was he cold and forbidding.
This, I later learned, was Leo Coladonato, the owner. He had been an employee for many years, but bought the business when Joe retired in 1985. The most remarkable thing about Leo, at first glance, was his moustache. A real soup-strainer. Thick, reddish and bushy, of a style that had gone out of fashion a century before. (That is, before hipsters and bartenders recently brought it back.) Leo always dressed in a too-small, colored t-shirt, a pack of cigarettes stuffed in the front pocket. Along the edges of the refrigerated cabinets behind the counter he had scotch-taped photos of his family and children.
While he made the sandwiches, I looked over the store. There were Boar's Head meats in the deli case. Loads of bags of chips were displayed in the cardboard boxes they were delivered in. The white shelves behind me held pasta, cans of tomatoes and kidney beans, jars of peppers and olives, and the usual assortment of mass-produced Italian goods. I wasn't excited about the selection; I could have purchased the same things at the nearby Key Food. But the sandwich was fantastic.
The second time I came in for a sandwich, I couldn't help but notice the dozens of little balls rolled in bread crumbs, sitting in a neat rows in trays to the right of the counter. What were they? Prosciutto balls, I was told. I didn't ask too many questions at Joe's. As an neighborhood interloper, I always feared making a faux pas and looking like a fool. I just ordered a few of the balls. I think I ordered two or three. Which was weird. Leo gave me a look. So I ordered a half dozen. That was OK, or so I understood by his reaction. They only cost about 50 cents back then. I was amazed at their cheapness.
After I ordered them, a weird thing happened. (Or, rather, it seemed weird at the time.) Leo grabbed six balls from a tray, passed from behind the counter and walked through a door on the opposite side. I was left standing there, with no instructions. "What happens now?" I wondered. I stood there. Some noises came out of the back room. I watched the silent TV. Finally, after a couple minutes, Leo came back with newly fried balls.
He put them in a little red-and-white paper carton, the kind you get french fries in at a roadside drive-in, and then wrapped the carton in white butcher paper. I paid and left. As soon as I stepped outside, I unwrapped the package and place one of the prosciutto balls in my mouth.
It's difficult to fully describe the sensory satisfaction of these bite-size wonders to someone who has never tried them. They were decadently rich, yet light as air. They were crisp and golden brown on the outside and achingly soft and tender just inside the crust. The square, thick chunks of ham, nestled inside a sea of ricotta and mozzarella, lent to their overwhelming savory quality. Two or three balls in, you could imagine eating them forever, like potato chips. But after six, you were ready to sit down on a park bench and take a nap. A half dozen were a meal.
I soon deduced that the prosciutto balls were what kept Joe's in business. He sold 500 a day in the store, and delivered 1,000 more. That's $750 a day, $4,500 a week. Just from prosciutto balls. Later, after the New York Times discovered the shop and published a long piece about Joe's in 2004, I learned that Leo had started making the delicacies while he was a still working under Joe. They was based on his mother's recipe for calzones. The Coladonato family, like so many in the neighborhood, had emigrated from Mola di Bari in Puglia, Italy.
Joe's Superette, as far as I can tell, opened in 1950s. It's history is entangled with Frank's, a deli just down Smith Street. Frank, who came from Italy, was a delivery boy at Joe's, which used to boast long lunchtime lines of people waiting for sandwiches. Soon after, though, Frank left and opened a deli nearby. According to local old-timers, there was a fierce rivalry between the two shops. Another told me Joe used to work at a place called Pete's Grocery at the corner of Smith and Carroll, so maybe Joe had created a rivalry of his own. I never learned Joe's last name.
After I discovered the wondrous secret of the prosciutto balls, I stopped by for a dose of them every few weeks or so. Often, I'd get them to go when I was hungry and didn't have time to eat, and then consume them on the subway into Manhattan. Other times, I'd eat them leisurely while enjoying fair weather in Carroll Park. Never did they make it back to my apartment. I knew the value of eating them fresh out of the fryer. They went up to 65 cents a piece later, but I didn't mind much. And I never really went back to ordering sandwiches.
After a number of years, I saw Leo less. Instead, I found a guy named Louie in the shop. He was younger, thinner, and sported an odd hair style—shaved on the sides, and slightly longer and lacquered down on top. But he made the balls just as nicely. I always wanted to take a peek at the kitchen, but never dared to ask. Luckily, Katia at Pardon Me For Asking took some shots of the back just before Joe's closed. (I'm using some of her pictures on this post, as well as one from Serious Eats.)
Joe's closed suddenly because Leo was suffering from health problems. Days after, on May 19, he died. The roller shutter of the store was decorated with flowers from fans and friends.
I've been thinking about those prosciutto balls a lot since Joe's closed, and how I'll never taste them again. I always knew Joe's was one of the treasures of Carroll Gardens. But I guess I didn't fully realize how essential it was. The culinary heritage of the neighborhood is vanishing. Fratelli's, which made great ravioli, is gone. Lattacini Barese, which sold the best homemade mozzarella in the area, is ten years gone. Helen's, with it's fabulous lasagna, is a distant memory.
What does that leave us with? Caputo is a fantastic bakery, no question about it. Court Street Pastry still upholds a standard, but Monteleone Bakery has passed through so many hands lately, you can't trust its treats. Esposito is an excellent pork store, with great soppressata, but there are other pork stores just as great in the city. Ferdinando's Focacceria makes some wonderful Sicilian specialities, but I'd be lying if I said the quality hasn't fallen off in recent years. And, with the exception of the House of Pizza and Calzone, all the good neighborhood pizzerias—Mola, Leonardo's—have closed.
To me, of all these merchants, Joe's, the most modest one, was also the irreplaceable one. For it did something—one thing—that no one else did nearly as well or as purely. It never kicked in for a new sign or awning, or remade the shop in nostalgic theme park. It stayed true. Thanks, Leo. Thanks.