Bensonhurst, like much of the rest of Brooklyn, is an area in flux. Take a stroll down 18th Ave. or 86th St., and you’ll notice that what was once one of the largest Italian neighborhoods in Brooklyn is becoming predominantly Chinese. Italian bakeries and Sichuan restaurants share the same block, and you’ll hear a mix of languages — Italian and otherwise — from the people on the street. But it’s still the destination ‘hood for all kinds of Italian food, from spleen sandwiches to cannoli, in our fine borough. Read on to see what you can find for under $10.
THE BEST SICILIAN SLICE
L&B Spumoni Gardens
2725 86th St (btwn. 10th and 11th Sts.)
This is the quintessential square slice. I think they have round pies too, but I’ve never actually seen anyone order one, and chances are it’s not worth your precious stomach space to dabble with such things. Each square slice ($2.25 each, or 12 for $19) is assembled in reverse. First the cheese, followed by a hefty amount of perfectly tangy sauce, and then a sprinkle of parmesan on top for good measure. The final result is light and airy, the opposite of the leaden square that you’ve probably eaten countless times at your local slice joint.
7118 18th Ave (btwn. 71st and 72nd Sts.)
Skip the pizza here and go straight for whatever looks good in the case next to the register or any of the specials on the menu above the pizza oven. While all of the Sicilian food at this take-out joint falls squarely into the gutbomb category, the panelle special ($6) takes the cake for “most gutbombiest,” or whatever. Multiple panelle — a fried chickpea fritter — are tossed straight from the deep fryer onto a massive sesame seed-studded roll and topped with a generous dollop of fresh ricotta and a mountain of parmesan cheese. Don’t attempt to eat it by yourself, lest you’re ready to slip into a cheese coma on the D train and wake up in Manhattan. Not like that happened to me or anything.
THE BEST CANNOLI IN BROOKLYN
7001 18th Ave (btwn. 70th and 71st Sts.)
If you haven’t already succumbed to a panelle-induced stroke, there’s nothing better than chasing ricotta with more ricotta, this time in cannoli form. “The cannoli here will make your eyes roll into the back of your skull,” said Allison Robicelli (of Robicelli’s fame) of the cannoli at this neighborhood institution. While I’m fairly certain that my eyes stayed put while I wolfed one ($2.50) down, this is probably the best cannoli in Brooklyn. There is something about the combination of cookie plus ricotta-based filling here that is absolutely perfect, making it totally worth getting inadvertently covered in cannoli goo for. Napkins are highly recommended.
A FIST-SIZED BALL OF RICE AND CHEESE
Joe’s of Avenue U
287 Avenue U (btwn. Lake St. & McDonald Ave.)
Avoid the dining room at this bustling Sicilian restaurant on the Gravesend/Bensonhurst border and head straight for the takeout counter, where many a cheap dish awaits, provided that you’re willing to eat it elsewhere due to the lack of seating. The arancino special ($6.50) is the thing to get here. A giant take-out container holds a fist-sized, deep-fried rice ball packed with cheese, ground beef, and peas, and topped off with some gravy plus ricotta (again!?) and parm. Heaven in a plastic soup bowl.
A ROAST BEEF THE SIZE OF A BABY
2033 Stillwell Ave (btwn. 85th and 86th Sts.)
Yelp notes that the famous roast beef, “mootz,” and gravy sandwiches ($8.50) here come in multiple sizes, but as far as I know the only one available is about a foot long and very unwieldy. Carrying this gargantuan sandwich from the counter to my table was a nightmare in itself. I grabbed the paper plates it sat on with two hands and clutched it near to my heart like a newborn child before plopping it down and diving in. The gravy kind of looks like gasoline and overpowers everything else in the sandwich, but it’s so good that you just keep eating it anyways. This is another sandwich that’s great for sharing, though it’s certainly possible to accidentally eat an entire one yourself.
MEAT 140 WAYS
Lioni’s Italian Heroes
7803 15th Ave (btwn. 78th and 79th Sts.)
Lioni’s is probably the most intimidating of the places on this list. Upon walking in, you’re faced with a massive menu of 140 different Italian heroes, none of which have prices, and some of which may have ingredients that you aren’t familiar with (capicola?). But worry not, the sandwich gods behind the counter will guide you towards the right decision. The #21, which contains prosciutto di parma, fresh housemade mozzarella, pesto, olive oil, and a dash of pepper ($12) is a great, basic place to start. It isn’t cheap, but it’s also two feet long. Share it with a friend or loved one and you have the perfect lunch for two, or eat one half and save the other for dinner. Or eat the entire thing like yours truly and take a four-hour nap afterwards. Sandwich consumption is surprisingly exhausting.
Follow Thomas: @versayce.