Exploring Bensonhurst’s Cross-Cultural Food Roots

By Wendy Wong

Onex

Bensonhurst is still thought of as Brooklyn’s “Little Italy,” but as with many of the city’s neighborhoods, the reality is far more complex. These days, the neighborhood supports a richly diverse blend of old and new specialty food shops, grocery stores and restaurants that cater to half a dozen immigrant communities.

On busy thoroughfares, like 86th Street, you’ll find Chinese bubble tea shops intermingled with Russian markets and the occasional Georgian cafe or Central Asian bakery. Meanwhile, in the northern part of the neighborhood, small pockets of the older Italian-American community are still hanging on.

Take Papa Pasquale Ravioli Co., which opened in 1943. Pat Lorina, the owner, has watched the neighborhood change as the shop passed from his Sicilian-born grandfather to his father and eventually to him. Through it all, Lorina has kept the food and service consistent and no-frills, even using the same food scale his grandfather did back in the day.

The ravioli is still made fresh every day, with fillings like asparagus with smoked mozzarella, sausage and peppers, pumpkin, lobster and roasted pepper. The shop also sells freshly made cheeses and homemade marinara and meat sauces.

Papa Pasquale is also known for their heroes, an Italian-American lunchtime innovation. The sandwiches, named after different Brooklyn neighborhoods, are made with prime meats and roast beef from G. Esposito & Sons, the famous butcher shop in Carroll Gardens’ Italian enclave.

The Bensonhurst hero ($8) comes loaded with prosciutto, hot or sweet capicola (a traditional Italian cold cut made from dry-cured whole pork shoulder or neck), fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and oregano. The salty prosciutto and tender sweet capicola pair well against the tangy balsamic vinegar, while slices of creamy mozzarella and crusty Italian bread provide a mild flavor base that ties these ingredients together.

During the 1980s and 1990s, much of Bensonhurst’s Italian community moved on to suburban Staten Island and New Jersey. Meanwhile, a large influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union arrived in South Brooklyn, settling first in Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay and eventually spilling over into Bensonhurst.

Cherry Hill Market, a neighborhood favorite since 1998, stands out among the Russian-owned delis and convenience stores along 86th Street. This Russian market is the original location of a local mini-chain, with a larger second location in Sheepshead Bay. The shoppers at Bensonhurst’s Cherry Hill are still predominantly Russian, but the goods on the shelves come from a wide range of countries and cuisines.

The small baked goods section has everything from baklava and tiramisu to French mille-feuille (a pastry layered with custard cream) and Kiev cake, a Ukrainian favorite. Nearby, customers queue up to take their pick from the day’s prepared food offerings: chicken-stuffed cabbage, beef tongue in garlic sauce, baked trout and Tatar-style azu (a meat stew from Russia’s Tatarstan region). The market also has a pickle station stocked with brined fruits and vegetables like red cabbage, apples, olives and peppers.

Despite its bustling aisles, Cherry Hill is more a vestige of Bensonhurst’s past than a reflection of the neighborhood’s current demographics. The older generation of Russian immigrants has also largely moved out of the neighborhood, and since the late 1990s a mostly Cantonese-speaking Chinese community has been growing in its stead. Today Chinese restaurants, grocery stores, bubble tea cafes and bakeries dominate the storefronts along 86th Street.

On many weekend evenings, diners squeeze into the crowded Lian Won Cafe, waiting to try the bo zai faan (Cantonese for “little pot”)—also known as clay pot rice or rice casserole. Chinese stir fries, noodle soups and congee (rice porridge) are also on the menu, but Lian Won, which opened in 2011, is best known for its eel rice casserole. The dish is made to order and comes with a soup made from the eel bones’ stock. During dinnertime, the smallest size ($20) easily feeds three people; larger sizes ($30 and $40) can feed entire families.

In order to make this dish, which hails from Taishan in southern China, long grain rice is cooked halfway and then mixed with pre-cooked eel in a clay or stone pot. Then the heat is turned up to fully cook the rice as it absorbs the flavors of eel. The pot remains closed throughout the cooking, so the steam trapped inside keeps everything moist and flavorful.

Once the lid is removed, savor the aromas of soy sauce and eel before you dig in. This comforting dish, sprinkled with freshly chopped scallion and cilantro, is mildly salty with a subtle hint of fishiness (from the eel). The accompanying soup arrives at the table with the fileted eel bone still floating alongside tofu and cilantro. The soup, with its milky texture (from the eel bones) and light, yet flavorful, broth, is steaming hot and deeply satisfying.

Earlier generations of Bensonhurst residents savored pasta e fagioli or borscht on colder evenings. Now this eel bone soup has joined the neighborhood’s multi-ethnic comfort food fare.

Papa Pasquale Ravioli Co.
7817 15th Ave (map)
Brooklyn, NY 11228
(718) 232-1798

Cherry Hill Market
2284 86th St (map)
Brooklyn, NY 11214
(718) 373-4900

Lian Won Cafe
2012 86th St (map)
Brooklyn, NY 11214
(718) 333-1666


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