There was a time — not that long ago, really — when the name “Cangiano’s” was more than just a word that will soon be found peeling off a weather-worn sign hanging over a now-closed Bay Ridge salumeria. You see, back when Spaldeens were still made on Atlantic Avenue, and working on the waterfront meant stevedores grabbing their box hooks and heading down to the deep-water ports of Sunset Park, the Cangiano name was synonymous with power, prestige and, above all else, mozzarella.
The story of the Cangiano dynasty is a tale that arcs the American century — a time when the United States was a place dreamers came by ship — ship, not boat — from far off lands to seek their fortunes and raise their families in a country that offered the promise that those fantasies could come true.
For many, that land was Brooklyn, and for Pasquale Cangiano, peering off Ellis Island with his wife Anna’s hand in his, fresh from Naples and staring at the borough lying out there like a killer in the sun, that dream was to sell the freshest produce, the best cold cuts, and homemade sausage that would knock your Aunt Connie’s socks off.
Nearly 100 years ago, the butcher by trade found work at — not surprisingly — a butcher’s shop in Carroll Gardens. There, he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming a partner in the establishment that, as of yet, did not bare his name.
That changed in 1919, when he founded the first Cangiano’s pork store on 14th Avenue between 65th and 66th streets, feeding a growing nation — one that had just won the first World War and was gearing up for its second — the aforementioned fresh mozzarella and sausage. Pasquale toiled at the shop with his wife as they raised their seven children. With the business booming, they opened up two new shops. His dream had come true.
But Pasquale didn’t live long enough to enjoy his success — he was struck down by a brain hemorrhage at 44. At 36, his devastated wife was left to run the business — and raise those seven kids — by herself.
And what a job she did.
Anna leased the two new shops, but kept the Bensonhurst business humming along. With her children, she created one of the most successful chains of pork stores in the borough.
Her son, Gus, went on to take over the company, and remembered working his tiny fingers to the bone for the good of the family.
“We were brought up in the trade,” said Cangiano. “We used to work 16 hours a day.”
Over the next 50 years, the family business thrived.
“From there we ended up going to 11th Avenue and then another store on Ave U and W. Seventh Street,” said Cangiano.
It was a family affair, and the brothers ran the empire.
Louie ran the store on Avenue U — which his brother Patsy later took over — before helping open the Staten Island shop. Danny ran the store on 11th Avenue.
By the 1990s, Gus’ nephew, Carmine opened up the fifth — and final — shop, this one in Bay Ridge.
But as the years passed, it became harder and harder to keep the stores going — mostly because the Cangiano kids had dreams of their own, and they didn’t revolve around prosciutto di parma. One by one, the stores closed.
For Gus, the toughest closure to swallow was that of the flagship Bensonhurst store — which is now, believe it or not, a Dunkin’ Donuts.
To Gus, that goes down tougher than the swill it calls coffee.
“It gets me sick every time every time I got down there to collect the rent,” he said, though not specifically referencing the coffee. “I get a nice rent from them, but I put 40 years of my life in that store. That don’t make me feel great.”
But the dream Pasquale Cangiano had 100 years ago was fulfilled. And his legacy will remain with us each time we look back at the photos of a family dinner, when Cangiano’s mozzarella was the best we ever had, and the sweet sausage made the Sunday gravy taste just right.