When most New Yorkers think of Staten Island – if they think of it at all – it’s as the butt of a joke about a trash dump. And oh, yeah, there’s the Staten Island Ferry – but the glorious view everyone cares about is of Manhattan.
But to me and my brother, Jason, Staten Island was the birthplace of our parents and the home of our revered maternal grandparents. This was the exotic land we visited to fill up on the affection and the heaping plates of macaroni (pasta being an unimagined yuppie locution) offered by our saintly grandmother Regina Serra. This was where we – two wimpy boys growing up in a leafy upstate college town – were awed by the blue-collar manliness of our gruff, heroic grandfather Joe Serra, a turn-of-the-century Italian immigrant. He dug subway tunnels; then, in 1920, he used his sweat and a secondhand truck to open a garbage-hauling business, Village Carting.
With the help of our family, my brother and I saw a hidden side of Staten Island. The biggest surprise when we visit now isn’t that everything is smaller than we remember – it’s that today, Staten Island offers even more underappreciated attractions for the outsider.
One, the Great Kills section of Gateway National Recreation Area, is tucked behind the strip-mall ugliness of Hylan Boulevard. Gateway stretches from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, to a chain of marshy islands in the shadow of JFK airport, out in Queens. After languishing for years, Gateway has improved under the stewardship of Kevin Buckley, the administrator who guided the restoration of the Statue of Liberty. He didn’t create the amazing view from Great Kills Beach – where you can sunbathe or swim in the Atlantic while gazing at the Rockaway Point lighthouse and the Verrazano Bridge – but Buckley has replaced the rotting wooden beach houses with simple, functional structures for changing clothes. On the bay side is a spiffy marina, glistening with 300 boats, from preening yachts to humble dinghies. Set between rolling hills is a field reserved for model-plane fliers. Snaking throughout the park is a trail for Rollerbladers and nature hikers. It’s almost pastoral enough to make you forget the whole thing is built on top of a landfill.
My grandparents were never much for the beach, but we go way back with the Staten Island Zoo (614 Broadway). It opened in 1936, and my father and his father soon became regulars; their favorite was Jocko the gorilla. Jocko has long since been paroled to the great jungle in the sky, but the zoo has other nostalgic wonders: Fences and paths are the perfect size for young children; peacocks range freely, showing off their feathers; and petite deer calmly submit to petting by small hands. The Staten Island Zoo operates on a shoestring, unaffiliated with the city’s other “wildlife centers,” so it doesn’t have many gadgets. But that’s part of its old-school charm. As are the crowds, which are a fraction of the hordes that clog the Bronx and Central Park zoos. A good recent addition: three Shetland ponies. Last month, when Jack, my 2-year-old son, rode away on Apache, he became the fourth-generation Smith to grin widely on this site.
Jack will have to wait a few years to appreciate another of the borough’s idiosyncratic highlights, the Wu-Tang Clan’s clothing and souvenir store. Wu Wear (61 Victory Boulevard) is hard by the housing projects that produced the members of the platinum-selling rap act, but the store, selling T-shirts, hoodies, albums, videos, and posters, attracts Wu-Tang fans from Maine, Germany, even Manhattan.
About a mile south on Victory Boulevard, and an ethnic galaxy away, is the best cannoli on Staten Island. “It’s all about freshness,” says Sal Tartamella, one of the managers of Alfonso’s (1899 Victory Boulevard and 4366 Amboy Road). “As we need ‘em, we make ‘em.” It’s appropriate that the scene in The Godfather where Clemenza says, post-hit, “Leave the gun, take the cannoli” was filmed on Staten Island.
Turning on to Port Richmond Avenue brings a glimpse of the time when rural Staten Island was dotted by distinct “towns.” This street used to be the thriving shopping district for Port Richmond. Malls killed the stores, and the towns have melted into quasi-suburban sprawl. Yet two of the avenue’s oldest outposts still attract lines of hungry customers. Denino’s Tavern, established in 1937, has fine cocktails, but its pizza is the real star. Denino’s (524 Port Richmond Avenue) is the kind of throwback restaurant where asking for a salad brings laughter. Crunchy-but-not-brittle crusts are the foundation for pies ranging from basic mozzarella-and-tomato-sauce to the ricotta-onion-and-meatballs blowout. For a beverage, try the unexpectedly tasty sangria. You’ll be the one laughing when the check arrives and it’s under $20.
Save some room for Ralph’s Famous Ices and Ice Creams, right across the street (501 Port Richmond Avenue). Open since 1929, Ralph’s has that perfect roadside takeout-food design: You have to stoop to look in the windows and read the menu board behind the teenage scoopers. The board is divided into ices (from lemon to rainbow), cream ices (including a wonderful banana-flecked Chunky Monkey), and ice creams. Ralph’s alone is worth the $7 Verrazano toll.
Across the island stands a grittier small-business landmark. It’s at 551 Midland Avenue. Joe Serra fed a large family from his labor in this brick garage. He lost one of his sons here; an explosion killed Andrew. Another son, Pat, runs the company today, even after the heavy loads blew out one of his knees. Uncle Pat is 78 now, and small, honest operators like Village Carting are trying to compete with giant corporations from out-of-state. Near the garage this summer, on the South Beach boardwalk, there’s a series of open-air concerts. If you find yourself on Midland Avenue, slow down a little as you pass. Village Carting will never be a tourist attraction, but it’s worth a moment of respect.