More Spleen, Sir?
As part of the book I published last year, I took part in — and often conducted — a number of meat-themed outings, adventures and experiments. There was the Testicle Festival in Montana (it was hilarious), a day spent helping a young couple on a family farm butcher their cow for the year (it was a lot of work), as well as a trip into the woods of Plain Dealing, Louisiana to hunt squirrels with a man named Leroy Nuckolls (pronounced “knuckles” – and it was emotional). And after I’d attempted to eat my way through 31 different animals in the span of a month came the “tour de beouf,” in which I tried to consume every part cut and organ of a cow deemed medically and culinarily appropriate for human ingestion. Over the course of several months, my friends and I had a blast cooking and eating everything from brains to bone marrow, tripe, hoof, tail, and everything in between.
Well, almost everything.
Sad to say, there were a couple of notable misses on my list, despite all the hits. Among them, unfortunately, was spleen. I say “unfortunately,” because I now know exactly how delicious it can be. Long after the book had made it into the world, I discovered that calf’s spleen, particularly as part of a sandwich called a vastedda, has been a Sicilian specialty for centuries. That shouldn’t be much of a shocker; most if not all of the innovative and delicious uses of offal come from the poorest parts of the world, and southern Italy, especially Naples and Sicily, has long been Italy’s most economically strapped region. A huge, glorious steak made from Chianina cattle might fly in Tuscany or Rome, but not for the average, hard-working Sicilian paisano. It’s simple math: Big, juicy cuts = big money; assorted scraps of strange organ meat = little money. To this day, you’ll find more than a few vendors on the street corners of Palermo selling vasteddi overflowing with hot chopped spleen served on freshly baked focaccia. The question was, would I be able to find this storied delicacy in New York?
I needed look no further than Ferdinando’s Focacceria, a small Sicilian restaurant in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Ferdinando’s has been in the neighborhood serving old-world southern Italian fare for well over a hundred years now, and is loved with fierce devotion and loyalty by generations of Brooklynites. Its decor is a classically charming Sicilian red sauce joint, the type of place that reminds me not just of certain restaurant scenes in The Godfather, but of the Italian eateries of my youth in New Orleans, a city which shares the same history of Italian immigrants (and their food) as Brooklyn. I doubt the menu has changed in decades, and good that it hasn’t; the lunch I enjoyed there with a few friends recently would be worthy of the capo di tutti capi himself.
I might have come for the spleen, but everything was a marvel. First, our appetizers: Antipasti siciliani (fried chickpea fritters, or panelle, served with ricotta, melted, grated cheese and marinara sauce), and the classic stuffed artichoke, brimming-over with warm, filling Italian love. Also new to me was the arancina — Italian for “little orange” — a rice ball stuffed with peas, sauce, and a little ground meat, then rolled in bread crumbs and fried. When it came to the table, it did indeed resemble its namesake, a sizable sphere of day-glo orange goodness that crumbled delicately when poked with a fork to reveal soft, yellow rice reminiscent of paella.
But the appetizer of the day, the whole reason I’d motored down to Red Hook in the first place, was my eagerly anticipated vastedda. It did not disappoint. A toasted, split focaccia roll piled over with dark, rich spleen and overflowing with creamy ricotta and a sprinkle of grated cheese.
And how was my spleen sandwich? Bar none, one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever enjoyed, and believe you me, I’ve eaten a lot of sandwiches in my day. The meat had that classic ammonia flavor you’d find in liver or kidneys, with a slightly spongy consistency that was balanced well by the soft richness of the ricotta and the flaky, pillowy focaccia. It was confirmed: I was a fan of spleen. Hard to believe that it was only $4.50, not to mention that it was an appetizer, for goodness sake. Between the rice ball and the sandwich, I was more than happy at under ten bucks. When my friend Christina, of Sicilian descent herself, sampled my vastedda with a little trepidation (“Spleen? Really?”) she was shocked to learn that she, too, had become a calf spleen lover as well.
Not that there weren’t more edible treasures on their way out to us. A meatball sandwich, again served with sweet red sauce, ricotta and a few torn basil leaves, as well as a classic braciolla, that mother of all Sicilian mothers’ home cooking, pronounced “bra-zshOLL.” Which is another fantastic facet of the Sicilian dining experience — the names of the dishes, spoken in their dialect of origin, dropping that last syllable and mushing the double consonants up a bit (unlike northern Italian, which is almost snobbishly phonetic), makes you kind feel as though you’d be at home in your favorite mob movie.
When all was said and done, we waddled out into the muggy Brooklyn afternoon happy and overstuffed, not unlike our sandwiches, and in dire need of a nap. I can’t speak for my lunch companions, but I did get a nap in. And when I dreamt, it was of the cobbled street corners of Palermo, with its vendors and their vasteddi. These are the things dreams of made of, indeed.
But who could have ever imagined dreams made of calf’s spleen?
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