15 October 2006

Old Dog, New Tricks, No Dice

The constant commerical expansion in New York City not only displaces great old businesses with new worse ones, it breeds bad habits in the few old school stores that remain.

Take Fratelli's, the ravioli and Italian goods store on Court Street in my Brooklyn neighborhood. For years, before Carroll Gardens burst wide open, it served up the best in Italian meats, cheeses, fresh pasta and prepared food. It's olive vats were the best in the area. It was a cramped, unfancy store, but clean, friendly and always crowded.

But then the owners started looking around, envying the success of the restaurants and cafes on Smith Street. So it shut down for a few months and reopened with an ugly, red neon sign with stretched up the side of the building that said "Fratelli's Cafe." Inside, cafe seating dominated the front section of the expanded space, with faux Italian art on the walls. There was a menu of trendy panini and such. The foodstuffs—the things that had made Fratelli great in the first place—were shoved to the back. And the olive vats were gone. Instead, olives were prepackaged in plastic containers. Freedom of olive choice was gone.

The place was now anodyne and anonymous. It had no character. And I never saw it crowded again. I think people were suspicious that it had become a fraudulent version of itself, that it was a manquee Italian food store, not the real thing. The owners didn't understand: people wanted Fratelli's for what it did well, what it knew backwards and forwards. They didn't want it to be a cafe—something it didn't know how to do. So they went to Caputo Fine Foods and other places that still stuck to tradition and didn't try to be something they're not.

I passed by the other day. There's a signs outside Fratelli's that says "For Rent."

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