13 January 2009

Meet the Cafieros

It's been a while since I've revisited my obsession with Cafiero's, the extinct Italian family restaurant that once dominated social activity on President Street in Brooklyn the way The Colony once ruled Cafe Society on the Upper East Side. This is mainly because I had nothing new to report about the place, which was so local, so secretive, so insidery that there were (to the best of my beliefs) no advertisements, no newspaper write-ups, no menus, no matchbooks, no paper trail whatsoever. The eatery, which closed in the 1970s, only lives on in the memories of some very old people.

But one of the joys of writing Lost City is it brings people to me I otherwise would never meet. A week or so ago, I was contacted by an actual Cafiero! I kid you not. Not the progeny of owners Sharkey and Katie Cafiero—they had no children. But Anna, the granddaughter of Katie's brother.

After I overcame the shock of this visitation, I began asking questions. Anna confirmed most of what I had reported before—That Cafiero's was the hangout of judges, celebrities and mobsters alike, that Sharkey kept things very low-profile so as not to attract too much attention; the privacy of his customers was his prime concern. The place was a family affair. Katie and Sharkey's sister, Mamie, were waitresses. Brother Frank was the cook.

But I also learned some new information. The restaurant was founded by Sharkey's parents, who subsequently lived in the rooms above the dining room. Mamie lived on the top floor. The Cafieros were from Naples and served Neapolitan dishes. People who ate there have mentioned to me such dishes as the Charcoal Broiled Veal Spedini, Vinegar Peppers over grilled pork chop, potato croquettes, the sides of rigatoni, the heros. I asked Anna is the family had retained any of the recipes and I could hear her laugh come over the next e-mail. There were no recipes. The menu changed daily, depended on what could be had at the market that day.

Anna sent over the photo above, which was taken at Chez Royale in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, probably years after Cafiero's closed. Sharkey and Katie are on the left and Katie's sister-in-law Anna is on the right. Looks like the man pictured below, no?

Anna's grandmother Anna, incidentally, also owned and operated a restaurant in the area. It was called Anna' Luncheonette, and was on the southeast corner of Columbia and Summit Streets. A vacant lot is there now. The luncheonette consisted of a large room with booths on the right side and a counter on the left. There was a telephone booth at the back wall along with a jukebox with 45 records. It had a tin ceiling.

I have learned recently that I may have a chance to go inside the old Cafiero building. Watch this space.


Anonymous said...

Cool story, as usual. Thanks for your dogged pursuit of the details. The Cafieros' place IS a restaurant I wish had been landmarked!!

Elaine Snutteplutten said...

I love your continuing research into this restaurant -- I used to live on that block, and I was always tantalized by the scraps of the neighborhood's past that persisted ... Great stuff -- now I just wish I had a time machine and could go back and eat at Cafiero's.

Melanie said...

Do you or anyone remember La Palinas???
One of the best family oriented Italian Restaurants--the waiter would come out and ask--what would you like to eat??They would customize a dish for you. I was really a small kid at the time and only wanted spaghetti with butter. My Dad said-when you grow up you will like more things than just spaghetti with butter. I do like more things now and I still like spaghetti with butter.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

No I don't, Melanie. Where was La Palina's located?

Melanie said...

Brooks-I was about 5 years old at the time--I Know it was somewhere in Brooklyn--could not be far from Park Slope where I grew up--Park Slope in those days was very different--I will google it and check back with you.

Melanie said...

There is a La Palina at 159 Avenue O In Brooklyn--not sure if they are related. The menu sounds similar and the prices are reasonable--I believe the La Palinas I went to was near or about Underhill Ave????? My Father drove us there--I just looked out the window..I believe Momma did all the cooking then (around 1953)

Sidney Reiff said...

Many thanks for reminding me of our family's all-time favorite restaurant- Cafiero's. It was a true gem. Although we no longer are in New York, we can never forget a truly great Broolyn landmark.

Sidney Reiff, M.D.

garyhope said...

One of my first and best studios was on Columbia St. between Union and President St. in Red Hook and this skinny, starving artist kid used to eat at the wonderful Cafieros when I could afford it. They were always kind to me and the food was great. I remember the baked clams with bread crumbs in the shells for $1.50. I took my parents there when they came to visit me and my mom remembered Cafieros for a long time afterward. Some said that Red Hook was a bad neighborhood, but it was great for me. The food shopping around there was incredible and the Italian people were so nice and sweet. Lovely warm friendly people.

Linda Q said...

I am so excited to find your blog. Mamie (Marie) Cafiero was my Grandmother. I have some details that will help you complete/correct(sorry) your story. I am not sure who Anna is. She is definitely not a Cafiero, but I am! My Great Grandfather, Anthony Cafiero, was born in Naples and opened Cafiero's in the early 1900's. My
Uncle Sharkey's real name was Anthony. And his wife was known as Kate, not Katie. My Great Uncle Frank (Mamie and Sharkey's brother) was the cook and used to throw pea sized dough balls at me when I was a tot in a high chair! It's one of the few early memories I have of the restaurant. My father Carl had one sister,Jeannie, who died in 1983. My Dad died nearly 2 years ago, and with him most of the great stories of his childhood and the family restaurant. I seem to remember a menu though. Perhaps it was added in the 60's or 70's. I think my Uncle Sharkey closed the restaurant in 1975. Why they didn't sell it is beyond me. The food was really that good, it's not just nostalgia. I remember the potato croquettes. 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 they were famous for(I know I butchered this word) 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 night's at Cafiero's. This was when they closed the restaurant. And my parent's and cousin's came for dinner in the restaurant.
I also remember John the waiter. He was always very nice to me. I have a lot of interesting stories, but
I am saving them for my blog, or book! Thank you for this small tribute to our family restaurant. If my Father was still alive he'd be thrilled to see this.


Unknown said...

I am also a relative of Cafieros. My dad was Aunt Katie's nephew. Her maiden name was Zurica. He took me to the restaurant every Sunday morning to visit Aunt Katie and Uncle Sharkey. He was by her side when she passed. I also have some little know information. You can contact me if you would like to know more.