Mon-Fri, 9:30am-8pm; Sat, 9:30am-6pm; Sun, 10am-5pm
6 at 23rd St.
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It took the Red Hook sandwich shop Defonte’s 87 years to open a satellite branch in Manhattan. efonte’s, the 87-year-old Red Hook hero shop that recently branched out to Manhattan. The spiffy second outpost is just down the block from the 13th Police Precinct, which gives the place the ideal built-in client base. In case you didn’t know, Defonte’s has a long, proud tradition of serving cops, not to mention truck drivers, crane operators, firefighters, longshoremen, and anyone else of hearty appetite and sturdy constitution. The shop was founded by Nick Defonte, an Italian immigrant who couldn’t find steady work on the docks and decided to sell sandwiches instead. Nick’s sons Danny and Vito inherited the business after World War II, then passed it along to Danny’s son (another Nick, a.k.a. Nicky), who now runs both the Brooklyn and Manhattan shops with a partner. Although Danny Defonte always wanted to expand and had an offer to open a slew of Defonte’s outposts back in 1969, the deal fell through, and it’s taken Nicky (the Younger) Defonte 25 years to get around to it. “I love Manhattan,” he says. “I wish I had done it twenty years ago.”
Contrary to early reports, the heros at the Manhattan shop (about nine inches by five) aren’t any less titanic than they are in Brooklyn. What’s different is that Defonte determined that Manhattan wasn’t ready for the freewheeling ordering procedure that became rote over the course of nine decades in Red Hook, so he decided to systematize his sandwiches (good for future expansion plans) and restrict the menu to twenty composed heros plus a few daily specials. A lot of the combos are pretty unique and appealing—so much so, in fact, that you may want to quickly work your way through the entire list before, as the Sterns might say, it’s too late. And that’s exactly what the U.G. did in three recent visits.
Our observations, in short: The fresh sesame-seed bread is close to perfect— a team player that’s neither too soft nor too sturdy, with a faintly crisp crust and a fine crumb. “Nicky’s famous hot salad,” a zingy pickled-veggie giardiniera, markedly improves just about anything it lands on. As do the thin, tasty sheets of batter-fried eggplant, a Defonte’s signature. (You get both on No. 34, the excellent Pork Hero, but you can add either of them to any sandwich for $1.50.) The heaviest sandwich, in case you were wondering, is the one-pound-seven-ounces No. 33, the calorific vegetarian paradox known as the Eggplant Parm (yes, we weighed it). Generally speaking, the hot heros are better than the cold ones. The cheeses, including the housemade mozzarella, can be kindly described as unobtrusive, and the cold cuts aren’t what today’s epicures would call artisanal, but the satisfying, neatly constructed whole is invariably greater than the sum of its parts. One exception: No. 29, the “Defonte’s Cuban,” a new-for-Manhattan Italo-Cubano crossover that substitutes a weirdly sweet, garlic-encrusted roll for the usual garlicky Cuban mojo sauce. Apologies, Mr. Defonte, but that’s just wrong.
Still, it’s a minor blip for a place that seems to be firing on all meat-slicing, jus-dipping, sauce-ladling cylinders. Without further delay, then, our top ten Defonte’s sandwiches in order of preference: Pork Hero, Peppers and Eggs (ask for it with tomato sauce, the way they do in Red Hook), Potatoes and Eggs (great with sliced cherry peppers), Hot Roast Beef (paired with fried eggplant and mozzarella), Deli King (corned beef, Swiss, coleslaw, and mustard), the Valentino Special (fried eggplant, provolone, roasted red peppers; the best cold sandwich), Chicken Cutlet Parm, the Dino (meatball parm), Hot Turkey (with Swiss and fried eggplant), and, finally, the deadly Eggplant Parm. These things are New York treasures, and so is Defonte’s of Brooklyn, no matter what borough it’s in.Ideal Meal
Pork hero, stuffed hot cherry peppers, green-olive salad.