It was a clear Tuesday evening as we headed toward the Hunts Point Market where the Fratelli Pizza Café, our destination for the night, is located. Traffic was backed up on the Willis Avenue Bridge, most cars were heading north towards the Major Deegan and Yankee Stadium where the Yankees were about to begin their game. We were heading east, and once we found ourselves under Bruckner Boulevard, the traffic completely vanished leaving us, literally, the lone vehicle on the road. The spooky feeling became almost post-apocalyptic as we turned onto Leggett Avenue, passing chop shops and auto glass and tire repair shops, the road still practically barren.
Turning onto Hunts Point Avenue, there was a bit of activity around an adult entertainment establishment called Mr. Wedge, and just a bit further up the road we located our destination. The pizzeria was small, just a few tables, and there were a variety of pizzas on display behind the counter that looked old and tired, including one, to my horror, with pineapple. Despite my best efforts to disguise it, there was no doubt that my disappointment was obvious. The proprietor, noting the look on my face, asked if he could help us. I told him we were waiting for others.
I chose Fratelli’s because I had heard that they were famous for their broccoli rabe (available both as a pizza topping as well as simply sautéed), made fresh and supplied by the nearby Hunts Point Market. Scanning the drab offerings behind the counter, there was no sign of what I and many Italian-Americans consider absolutely essential comfort food. Broccoli rabe’s appeal, with its bittersweet flavor, especially combined with garlic, olive oil, and crushed red pepper, goes directly to my nerve center, immediately stirring a rare combination of feelings including but not limited to pure pleasure, child-like happiness, and a primal sense of contentment.
I asked the proprietor, who introduced himself as “Joe,” if broccoli rabe was available. He assured me that it was. I inquired how he prepared it on the pizza. He showed me a square pie, adorned only with tomato sauce, where cheese and broccoli rabe would be added, that he called a “Grandma.”
While we were conversing, one of the tightly clothed “entertainers” entered from next door, and ordered a hero. I noticed a picture of Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack taped onto the plastic counter along with a small photograph of writer, television personality, and chef Anthony Bourdain. “Bourdain says we have the best garlic knots he’s ever had,” Joe proclaimed, proudly adding that a segment on Fratelli’s broccoli rabe was filmed by Bourdain and his crew for his Travel Channel program No Reservations.
Our group, collectively, could be considered pizza snobs. We had been to many of the Tri-State area’s greats; Patsy’s in Harlem, Totonno’s in Coney Island, Grimaldi’s near the Brooklyn Bridge, Sal’s in Mamaroneck, and, of course, the remarkable Di Fara's in Midwood, Brooklyn, so our standards were high. Maybe we were expecting too much from a 24-hour pizzeria situated next to a strip joint.
Joe took me around to the other entrance to show me the accolades Fratelli’s received from the Village Voice including “Best Broccoli Rabe.” The rest of our crew arrived and we told Joe to go ahead with making a Grandma pie with broccoli rabe.
“Are you connected with the Fratelli’s on Eastchester Road?” Eugene asked Joe. Joe shook his head. “The Fratelli’s in New Rochelle?” Again, Joe responded in the negative. “There are a lot of Fratelli’s around. I’m from Corona.” We told Joe from Corona to go ahead and make us a Grandma pie with broccoli rabe, a plate of sautéed broccoli rabe, and some of those Bourdain-praised garlic knots. While we waited, Joe brought us out the Fratelli’s version of an amuse bouche of what he called a “Christina” pie.
“This is also one of my most popular,” he said. The “Christina” was a square pie with tomato sauce and fresh tomatoes, topped with fresh mozzarella. The display version he showed me was not impressive, but after reheating was, remarkably, brought back to delicious life; the crust nicely charred, the tomatoes flavorful and the cheese still fresh. Maybe our first visual impressions were wrong.
The Grandma pie came out, steam flowing from the huge square pie overflowing with broccoli rabe. A few moments later, Joe brought out a aluminum take-out dish with the sautéed broccoli rabe and a plate of garlic knots. “What you do,” Joe from Corona explained. “is slit open the garlic knots and slather some of that broccoli rabe inside making a kinda garlic knots broccoli rabe sandwich.”
We took his advice and the tender, perfectly sautéed broccoli rabe worked magnificently with the “best garlic knots ever.” Our enthusiasm was evident in the way we were devouring mounds of the greens with absolutely no worries about potential next day consequences from all that roughage. “When the woman from Channel 7 was here,” Joe said, casually dropping another television plug for his establishment, “she asked how I made the broccoli rabe. I said that 'if I told her, I would have to kill her.' I can’t believe she actually used that.”
After a few forced chuckles, we resumed eating. Two slices of the Grandma pie remained along with a few of the dregs of the sautéed broccoli rabe and a couple of garlic knots. “I’m done,” Zio groaned.
I couldn’t eat anymore, nor could Rick. Gerry and Eugene, sitting at another table, shrugged, their eyes on the remains. “Well if they’re not gonna eat it. . . .” Eugene said as he and Gerry scooped up the last two Grandma slices without any hesitation.
From behind the counter, Joe lifted up a tray that held a Sicilian pie and showed it to us. “I make my Sicilian differently than other places. I put the cheese under the sauce. People come from all over for it.”
We nodded. He no longer had to work us. We were convinced.