When Defonte’s Sandwich Shop opened on the Brooklyn waterfront in 1922, it sold sandwiches to the (mostly) Italian longshoremen that filled the neighborhood before and after shifts on the docks. Today, folks from all walks of life are lined up. On a recent visit I spotted a small group of millennials, two undercover cops, a few men in their fifties, and myself, crying baby in tow. We were all hungry for cured meats, provolone and mozzarella, roast beef.
Defonte’s sits on a corner in the hard-to-reach Red Hook neighborhood that, despite its proximity to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Hugh Carey Tunnel to Manhattan, is fairly quiet and likely desolate after Defonte’s closes at 4 p.m. But stepping inside is another story. There’s action all around you: customers putting in orders, old-timers doing the same while also exchanging pleasantries with the staff, friends catching up while they wait for heaven on a hero to be handed over.
When it is, it lands with a thud. The sandwiches are huge and come in one-third or one-half sandwich sizes, each cut into two pieces. The menu at Defonte’s is long and can give newbies pause. But let me cut straight to the point: Any order will be delicious.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t standouts.
The most popular and talked-about is called the Nicky Special. Sesame-studded Italian bread is stuffed thick with capocollo, salami, ham, fried eggplant, provolone, marinated mushrooms, lettuce, tomato and Defonte’s “hot salad,” which is a heady mixture of pickled cherry peppers, cucumber and celery, among other vegetables. Salty, sweet, spicy, crunchy; this sandwich has it all.
Fried eggplant alone is something to drive for. Sliced super thin and fried in special batter, it is creamy and crispy and appears on many sandwiches. One of my favorites is the vegetarian (gasp!) Valentino Special, with eggplant, provolone, roasted red peppers, lettuce, and tomato. I add mayonnaise; but traditionalists opt for oil, maybe a little vinegar, salt and pepper.
Another winner is the roast pork special, a hot hero made with marinated pork, broccoli rabe, fried eggplant, provolone and gravy. It tastes like supper in a sandwich. The rabe is garlicky and has a great crunch, while the eggplant and pork are creamy and rich.
Here’s a pro tip: Arrive early, especially on weekends. When I was a newbie I made the mistake of sending my husband to pick up all my favorites one Saturday at 3 p.m., thinking I could have Defonte’s for dinner. Almost everything was sold out.
Defonte’s is open early—thank the sandwich gods—and the egg and potato, laced with mozzarella and served warm on Italian bread, makes me want to get up in the morning.