Revered Red Hook sandwich institution Defonte's of Brooklyn has a new creation: A Manhattan outpost—the first spin-off from the 87-year-old family- owned shop. Nicky Defonte, whose grandfather founded the business in 1922, brings the same no-fuss, no-bull approach that has made the Brooklyn location a local legend.
"I get my fish from a guy on Avenue U," he says. "I get my corned beef from somebody in Greenpoint. I won't bullshit nobody. You got it or don't got it." What Defonte's has got: time-honored faves like potatoes-and-eggs with mozzarella, and a hearty roast-beef sandwich with fried eggplant, both of which hop across the river to the new location.
Before opening, though, the Bensonhurst-born Defonte had to deal with an unexpected blow: his father's hospitalization due to heart illness. Ever the trooper, the 53-year-old called us from his father's upstate hospital to chat about four generations of Defontes, and to look ahead at the newest addition to their growing brood of sandwich shops.
You practically grew up at the shop. What was the first sandwich you ever made there?
Probably a salami and cheese with lettuce and tomato. Something simple. Start off easy [laughs].
The shop is pretty historic.
My grandfather bought this shop from a guy named Brooklyn in 1922. It was a grocery store at the time. And then little by little, these people used to hang out. They'd stay until 2 in the morning, and they'd ask my grandfather to make them a sandwich. He started with white-bread sandwiches, and then went to hot food, and that's how it became famous.
What's the secret to the shop's success?
Caring about the products that you use. I look for a certain Italian bread, I look for a certain potato for the potato-and-eggs. My roast beef comes from Colt's Neck, N.J. I get my sausage from a guy on 18th Avenue I won't bullshit nobody. . If you don't have it, I'll say, thank you very much for your time, and move on from there.
So what was the Manhattan space before you took over?
A Blimpie's [laughs].
Are you ready to duke it out in Manhattan?
I've been ready for a long time—20 years, 25 years. And I'm going there with a Defonte name that people know about it. I was just in Jamaica on vacation a week ago, and a guy comes up from behind me and says, "I wish I had a potato-and-egg sandwich." Because he comes into my place.
I'll give you one other story. I'm eating lunch in this store in Brooklyn, and a guy comes up to me and says, "I'm in Rome, Italy, having dinner at a café, and people two tables away from me were talking about your store. In Italy."
The shop has really made an impact.
People who are in their 40s—their father passes away, and before they visit the grave they come to the shop and get, like, 20 sandwiches. And you know what they tell me? "Nick, I was here when my father used to carry me in his arms. It's what my father would've wanted us to do."
It must be tough, getting ready to open this shop and your father's in the hospital.
I will not have a grand opening until he comes out of the hospital. He taught me everything I know. [Breaks down and starts to cry] I can't talk about my father right now.
We'll be wishing your father the best.
My father, let me tell you, he's the hardest worker I ever met in my life. My father said, "If you can't talk and work at the same time, stop talking." [Laughs]. He was that type of guy.
[Editor's note: Looks like we'll get that grand opening after all. Nicky's father, Danny Defonte, is recovering well from surgery.]
Photo by Sam Horine