Photo by: Johannes Kroemer (www.johanneskroemer.com/)
Oct. 2011 — I freeze as I walk into Court Street’s G. Esposito’s & Sons Jersey Pork Store: I know George Esposito well enough to know he’s got strong feelings about grocery stores, and here I am holding a bag from Trader Joe’s. I stuff the bag into the nether regions of my stroller and hope nobody saw.
I’m visiting Esposito’s this morning to watch George, the third generation of Esposito to run this butcher shop in Carroll Gardens, make his famous soppressata, a spicy, dry-cured salami, lauded by Zagat’s and food magazines as among the city’s best. Soppressata is the hot item of the moment in trendy pizzerias including Motorino in Williamsburg, with the pizza blog Slice calling it “the new pepperoni.”
Esposito’s soppressata is hand-made and hung in a room set to stay at 62 degrees.
“Those are the big guys up there,” George says, pointing to the bulbous red logs hanging from the ceiling, tied with string. “That’s what started us, and that’s what keeps us going.”
Esposito’s back office shrine to their Italian Catholic roots.
Much has changed since Esposito’s opened as New York’s first pork store during Prohibition in 1922, but the Esposito brothers, George and John, run things as their father and grandfather did: Everything is handmade on a daily basis, eggplant is pickled in a 100-year-old cask, meat is purchased from the same guy in Jersey who sold pork to the family two generations ago and the shop is not open on Sundays during summer. Esposito’s doesn’t advertise and they hand-write their signs on neon poster paper. And that’s that.
Oh yes, and the shop is cash only. George does not believe in credit cards. “They mess up a lot of people’s lives,” George says. “People buy things at the grocery store, and they don’t have the money to pay it back. It’s like loan sharking, it’s the same thing. The credit companies give you money even though you have no money, and you have to pay them back.
George’s hands move fluidly as he stuffs herb-, pepper- and wine-laden ground pork into the flimsy wet casings that hold the mixture together. He regales me with tales of the good-old days in South Brooklyn, when he spoke Italian to customers who stood in lines out the door. Esposito’s in the early decades sold high-quality pork, and only pork, in bulk to moms feeding large clans.
I always wondered why it was called the Jersey Pork Store. George says it’s because back in the day, people worried about tainted pork. Esposito’s opened as a specialty pork store guaranteeing a quality product. Now, pork is safe to eat, but old worries linger, and people ruin pork because of it: “People kill sausage; they cook it to death. Relax. Those days are over. Cook it on a low flame. You don’t want it to get black, ever. Keep it pink.”
Today Esposito’s sells a wide variety of high-quality meats, from aged steaks and organic chicken to house-ground hamburger and lamb chops. The hefty deli sandwiches made by George, John and the always-smiling Santino are fantastic, as are the prepared foods such as lasagna and eggplant rolls. Esposito’s also features house-made pepperoni and Spadinis from Naples: pork tenderloins stuffed with mozzarella cheese, parsley and breadcrumbs. They import a lovely mortadella (the real bologna, from Bologna, Italy, and featuring roasted pistachios) and prosciutto.
George talks and jokes as he works, there’s no need to measure. He’s been making soppressata since he was 10. A casing flips and splashes me with juice. I’m initiated.
As George moves the mixture through a machine, he talks about his youth in rough-and-tumble South Brooklyn. When The Jersey Pork Store opened, three years after Al Capone was married down the street at St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Catholic Church, South Brooklyn was packed with Italian immigrants working the docks. George’s grandfather moved here from Naples when he was 15, and opened the shop on Court and Carroll. But Court Street was too quiet, so the family moved the store in 1923 to Columbia and Union in Red Hook, a vibrant shopping area back then.
The store enjoyed a good run until Red Hook started to go downhill in the 1950s and 1960s, when the BQE separated Columbia Street from Carroll Gardens, and ship container work moved to New Jersey. Unemployment skyrocketed, as did crime.
“Nobody wanted to go down there after the BQE,” George said.
Columbia Street became increasingly unsafe, and George and John saw people shot and stabbed. The mob ran things down there, George says, and different groups would fight each other. The pork store was victim to break-ins by druggies. All the meat was stolen before Christmas one year.
During the blackout of 1976, “it was bad, really dangerous. All the stores were looted. My brother and I and our friends stood on guard outside the store,” George said. The family moved the shop back to Court Street in 1977.
Now the enemy isn’t crime, but grocery stores, restaurants and the round-the-clock Gotham work schedule. George pleads with his new neighbors.
“Eat healthy. Support the local stores. I understand that people work and they want to go out and eat. But there’s nothing wrong with a home cooked meal. There’s nothing better. And think of all the money you will save.”
The mere mention of the health food store across the street sends George, a muscular, tatted man, into a flutter of agitation.
“It’s stupid to go to a supermarket in this neighborhood. Maybe if you live in a bad neighborhood. Here you have the best of everything. Beautiful fruit markets, the farmer’s market, fish markets, and us. People move here because they love the shops and then they don’t shop there, and shops close. We don’t worry about competition. We worry about making a high-quality product. If you care about quality, this is your place.”
If you head into Esposito’s for the first time after reading this story, tell them South Brooklyn Post sent you!
G. Esposito & Sons Jersey Pork Store
357 Court St.
Some prices: Ground sirloin, $5.50/lb; Bell and Evans boneless organic chicken breast, $3.99/lb; Whole Bell and Evans chicken, 3.5 lb, $8.50; Leg of lamb, $7/lb; Aged T-Bone $14/lb.