Last American Heros

Photo: Hannah Whitaker

The thought that lingers on the mind of the Underground Gourmet after a typical day of sifting through the latest food and restaurant news is that it won’t be long before we’re all starving to death. Everything that’s worth eating, it seems, is going the way of the woolly mammoth. If you don’t believe us, consider the title of the forthcoming book from Jane and Michael Stern: 500 Things to Eat Before It’s Too Late. Then there’s the recently published Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York, which chronicles the city’s fading mom-and-pop shops, including some historic bakeries, bars, and restaurants. If a once-thriving hash house or gin joint has yet to call it quits, or hasn’t burned down (as Totonno’s, sadly, did last week), the prevailing sentiment seems to be Just give it time.

The good news is that a few old-timers are determined to muddle through and hang on and, in a couple of rare instances, actually prosper. Take, for example, Defonte’s, the 87-year-old Red Hook hero shop that recently branched out to Manhattan. The spiffy new 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.

Speaking of sandwiches, no one knows exactly how many there are at Sunny & Annie’s, an unassuming 24/7 corner deli on Avenue B, but it’s safe to say it might be in the hundreds. The place doesn’t have a menu, just dozens of Sharpie-scrawled paper signs plastered willy-nilly over the deli case. On the back of their business card, however, there’s a short list of a few signatures, many of them named for politicos, like the John Kerry (lemon chicken, chipotle pepper, fresh mozzarella, onion, avocado, tomato, and cilantro). Realizing our limitations, the U.G. didn’t attempt to try them all, but among the ones we did sample, our favorite was the P.H.O. Real (roast beef, bean sprouts, basil, cilantro, tomato, onion, hoisin, Sriracha). It takes on the considerable challenge of translating a bowl of Vietnamese pho into a kaiser-roll sandwich, and pretty much succeeds. So did nearly all the other half-dozen sandwiches we wolfed down on a recent late-night visit—even, surprisingly enough, the Biden, which is a chicken-cutlet combo served on a flattened, toasted jumbo croissant.

Defonte’s of Brooklyn
Address: 261 Third Ave., at 21st St. 212-614-1500
Hours: Monday through Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Prices: Sandwiches are $7.95 to $9.95.
Ideal Meal: Pork hero, stuffed hot cherry peppers, green-olive salad.
Note: More seating is on the way.
Scratchpad: Spirited service and friendly banter elevate the sandwich experience to something more than the sum of its sometimes pedestrian parts. Two stars.

Sunny & Annie Deli
Address: 94 Ave. B, at 6th St.; 212-677-3131
Hours: Seven days, 24 hours.
Prices: Sandwiches are about $5 to $8.
Ideal Meal: The P.H.O. Real.
Note: Late at night, the crowds can be almost Defonte’s-esque.
Scratchpad: One star for exceeding corner-bodega expectations and turning Boar’s Head meat into something that hits the spot at 3 a.m.

Last American Heros