In Southern Brooklyn, a super hero’s powers come not from a spider bite, extraterrestrial origins or a special metal flight suit, but from homemade mozzarella, cured meats and crusty bread.
The iconic Italian-American hero is still the reigning king of sandwiches in neighborhoods whose culinary landscapes have dramatically changed over the past several years. Among the noodle shops in Bensonhurst and kebab houses in Sheepshead Bay, legendary delis are serving the same bigger-than-your-head sandwiches that the owners’ Southern Italian immigrant ancestors started crafting in the 1920s.
“There were and still are a lot of Italian-Americans in Brooklyn, so my father opened this place 43 years ago because this is what people wanted to eat,” said Robert Cicero, owner of John’s Deli on Stillwell Avenue near 86th Street. “I grew up eating this food.”
John’s, whose walls are adorned with signed photos of Sopranos cast members, is actually famous for its sliced-to-order hot roast beef, but its “Godfather” cold-cut sandwich ($7.75) is an offer you can’t refuse. This foot-long monster is stuffed with Boar’s Head prosciutto, capicola, mortadella, provolone and even fresh mozzarella — if you ask for it (we recommend that you do).
Like Brooklyn’s other great heros, John’s “Godfather” is a lesson on how flavors and textures can complement one another. A toothsome, yet airy loaf gives way to creamy and tangy cheese that’s stacked on top of thinly sliced, spiced meats. Cicero’s team adds a little vinegar for acid, and voila, a perfect hero.
The standout ingredient in John’s well-composed creation may the bread, which comes from the 88-year-old Mona Lisa Cafe on 86th Street. Heros actually originated about 90-years-ago when Italian-American bakers fell in love with French-style demi-baguettes, and most deli owners agree that bread is the essential foundation of a sandwich.
“The bread is definitely the most-important factor,” said Paul DiSpirito, whose family has owned Lioni, now on 15th Avenue, for almost 40 years. Lioni gets its crusty bread from Cammareri Bros. Bakery on Bath Avenue and uses it to make about 150 sandwich combos. Our favorite is the #139, a $14 behemoth dubbed “The Doo-Wopper.” The premium ingredients make this sandwich worth its hefty price-tag, as it includes Italian-imported prosciutto, capicolla and spicy soressata. “The Doo-Wopper” is also as distinctive as Frankie Valli’s falsetto because of the bruschetta topping. It’s a zesty chopped salad featuring tomatoes, basil, garlic, reggiano cheese, oil and vinegar.
Faicco’s on 11th Avenue in Dyker Heights is another old-time shop that takes toppings seriously. The $10 Italian special is accented with roasted peppers and olives, and the house-made mozzarella isn’t bad either. Faicco’s is also a butcher shop with killer sausages, so get some broccoli-rabe-and-fennel links for later.
The 75-year-old G&S Salumeria and Pork Store on Avenue U is another butcher shop with sandwich-making skills.
“Our Italian combo sandwich is all about balancing ingredients,” said owner Eddie Forni.
The cured meats, especially the prosciutto di Parma, are the real stars of the $7 sandwich. Forni insists on storing his Italian-imported meats at precisely 32 degrees Farenheit for the ultimate freshness.
“I owe it to the people of my neighborhood to go the extra mile,” Forni said. “We’ve been around for so long because everything is hand-crafted. It’s like eating at home.”
John’s Deli [2033 Stillwell Ave. at 86th Street in Bensonhurst, (718) 372-7481]; G&S Salumeria and Pork Store [2611 Avenue U between E. 26th and E. 27th streets in Sheepshead Bay, (718) 646-9111]; Faicco’s [6511 11th Ave. between 65th and 66th streets in Dyker Heights, (718) 236-0119; Lioni [7803 15th Ave. at 78th Street in Bensonhurst, (718) 232-1411].