If you lived in Bensonhurst a little over a decade ago, you knew about Mister Joe. He was the guy who roasted coffee and sold cups of it out of his storefront at 14th Avenue and 63rd Street. The lady who ran the corner store next door was his wife.
“We always called him Mister Joe. He’s just Mister Joe,” says Kings Coffee owner Dominic Palastro, who lived nearby and frequented the coffee shop with his father growing up. Palastro, who now runs his own successful coffee outpost in Red Hook, didn’t know just how important Mister Joe would become to him at the time. Growing up, coffee was his father’s passion, not his. Today, Palastro sits down with Brokelyn to talk about his unlikely career path, where small business meets old tradition, and how ‘neighborhood’ is more than meets the eye.
“He was a neighborhood guy everybody knew down in Bensonhurst, roasting everything himself, handling all these big accounts,” Palastro recalls. “His wife ran the corner store, and he roasted the coffee. But when she passed, he started slowing down a bit.”
Palastro calls it ‘Italian retirement’: when passionate business owners and artisans getting on in years claim they’re retiring, it doesn’t mean much. They’ll probably keep working until their last breath.
“One day, Mister Joe said to my brother and me, ‘If you guys are ready to start coming by, I’m ready to start teaching you.”
‘One day, he said to my brother and me, ‘If you guys are ready to start coming by, I’m ready to start teaching you.”
As it happened, Palastro and his brother were ready. 21 and 16 at the time, respectively, they were inspired by their father’s affection for the coffee. “I think he had a lot of fear that if Mister Joe stopped, it wouldn’t be around anymore,” Palastro says.
Thus began an apprenticeship that would span two years, over which time Palastro steadily withdrew from his life in finance, giving up greenbacks for coffee beans. “If I had known I was going to go into coffee, I would have gone to school for chemistry,” jokes Palastro. “I was studying finance and economics at the time. I was just trying to figure my life out.”
Now, of course, you couldn’t tell. Palastro’s passion for the trade is evident in his every move — from the enthusiasm with which he describes each brewing technique to the attention he pays every customer that walks by his shop, which sits in a built-out open garage. He pauses our conversation to shake hands, to wave at faces he recognizes. He hangs around the space with an ease that makes us all comfortable. There’s no doubt about it: Dominic Palastro is a coffee Don.
Palastro’s Italian heritage isn’t just shtick, either — it’s more like his mission statement. “Joe’s teacher was Italian, Joe’s Italian, I’m Italian,” he says. “I wanted to create a space that would honor the tradition of Italian espresso, but also build on that.”
At Kings, every shot is pulled by hand from a manual press. Predictably, there’s no drip coffee available. You can order caffè italiano, cappuccino, shakerato (sweetened espresso shaken over ice, served up), or some of their smooth, concentrated cold drip—diluted to order. There are no modifications to the drinks; the menu reads Organic Whole Milk Only — Sugar Only. But sip on any of these modest, expertly prepared beverages, and you’ll wonder why you ever started your mornings with a large skim latte.
‘I don’t need to reach Stumptown levels of distribution to feel like I’m successful.’
Palastro is adamant about Italian tradition — even at the expense of financial gain. Nestled amongst Third Wave coffee tycoons like Stumptown, Stonestreet and Joe, Palastro’s not intimidated. “There are guiding principles behind what I’m doing,” he says. “We’re trying to honor the tradition of Italian coffee, and I don’t need to reach Stumptown levels of distribution to feel like I’m successful. We consume so much coffee. If I’ve figured out a way of doing something that’s enhancing people’s coffee drinking experience, and creating a space for people to socialize, then I’m happy.”
Socializing is certainly a coveted opportunity in the quiet recesses of Red Hook, Brooklyn. Once you get west of the BQE, the chatty quaintness of Carroll Gardens gives way to a quiet, industrial area nearly inaccessible by public transit. Kings Coffee (37 Carroll Street) sits on quiet side-street of that area.
It’s hard to imagine a neighborhood coffee shop flourishing, let alone surviving, in such a landscape. But Palastro, who was born in Red Hook and grew up in Bensonhurst, says he feels right at home.
“I don’t like the idea that we’re ‘creating’ a community here,” he tells us. “We’re just facilitating it. There’s a whole bunch of people down here that have been down here their whole lives, and there are people just moving in, and we could be coming from completely different worlds. But this is a space that facilitates people meeting and talking. And that’s also part of Italian coffee culture.”
Ever the staunch disciple of Mister Joe, Palastro feels similarly protective of his recipes for Kings’ signature coffee blends. “Joe never told anybody his recipes. It’s like with tiki. You wouldn’t ask Trader Vic or Don the Beachcomber to tell you their secrets!”
At a robust 84 years old, Mister Joe is still alive today. He drops by Kings every now and then to see his progeny at work, more out of pride than necessity. The tradition has officially been “passed down” to his apprentice—but that doesn’t mean all the secrets are out.
“After all the years, he’s still holding some things back,” laughs Palastro. “He’ll drop by and say, ‘Hey, did I ever teach you this?’ and I’ll learn something new.”