One day I will write a book about Cafiero's, the Red Hook Italian restaurant that was a legend in its day, but is all but forgotten today. I have been slowly piecing together the history of this mysterious President Street eatery, which was a favorite of mobsters and judges, and today lives on only in the memories of the people who ate there before owner Sharkey Cafiero closed the place in the 1970s, refusing to sell the place to anyone else.
Over the years, I have heard from a few folks who told me they were relations of Shakey and Kate Cafiero, or regulars of the restaurant. To recap the history, Sharkey, who was born in Naples, owned the place. Wife Kate and Sharkey's sister Mamie (Marie) were waitresses. Sharkey's brother Frank was the cook, and apparently quite adept at flinging balls of dough at local kids with great accuracy. Everybody lived above the restaurant. The bill of fare would be based on what Frank could find at the markets that day. There were a few tables up front, but the real dining room for the locals was in back, back the open kitchen. The waiters were named John and Red.
So, recently I heard from Linda, who told me she is the granddaughter of Mamie. She wrote in to clarify a few points of Cafiero's history and also add some additional information. Sharkey's real name was Gaetano. He changed it to Anthony in the 1940s, though everyone called him Sharkey anyway. Linda believes there was indeed a menu, but it may have been added in the 1960s or 1970s. Sharkey closed the restaurant in 1975.
Of the food, she remembers the potato croquettes the best and said "I have yet to eat one as good, although I've had a few in Barcelona that came close. And there was something called a beef brasholatine [she's not sure on the spelling] they were famous for that my grandfather once showed me how to prepare. It really is a shame that we have none of the other recipes but I can give away one secret: they used lard to fry foods, not vegetable oil. Lard makes for a very tasty veal cutlet Milanese. I have such fond memories of Monday nights at Cafiero's. This was when they closed the restaurant. And my parents and cousins came for dinner in the restaurant."
The most important piece of information Linda sent along, however, concerns Cafiero's most famous visitors. Once of the earliest stories I ever heard about the place was that Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio has once eaten there. "It was Arthur Miller who accompanied Marilyn Monroe to Cafiero's," wrote Linda. This actually makes sense, because Arthur Miller spent a lot of time in Red Hook as a young man, and based his play "A View From the Bridge" on the dock workers in the area. He would certainly have know about Cafiero's.
"My Uncle Sharkey didn't know who she was—hard to believe that was possible—and called her 'girlie' as in, 'Please have a seat here, Girlie.' My family has been telling this ridiculously funny story for years."