“You know how In-N-Out Burger has that Animal-style shit?” declares the rapper Tone Tank while nursing a Manhattan Special at Brancaccio’s Food Shop in his native borough of Brooklyn. “Well, we’ve got a Tone Tank-style: It’s any sandwich on lard bread, which has little chunks of prosciutto in it.”
This secret off-menu item—which is only available on weekends, and even then on the whims of the spot’s proprietor, Joe Brancaccio—is the latest hip-hop connection to pop up at Brancaccio’s, an Italian prepared-foods joint that’s resolutely old school in soul. Artists like M.O.P., Special Ed, and Edan have been Instagrammed passing through to check out the deep sandwich science that goes down here; the iconic Beastie Boys snapper Ricky Powell seems to consider it a regular hang-out location; and artwork from Mr. Kaves, the graffiti artist and founding member of the Lordz of Brooklyn, adorns the walls. Naturally, classic hip-hop music bumps in the background—this afternoon, it’s De La Soul’s Buhloone Mindstate.
For his part, Tone Tank has immortalized the place in song on his new album, One-Offs and One-Upmanships: “When I need a sandwich I go hit up Joe Brancaccio’s / And sip a Manhattan Special,” he raps on “Cuzzos,” a spacey track that’s preceded by a self-promotional skit starring the emporium’s owner.
But it’s not the first time Tone has dipped into Brooklyn food history in his rhymes either. Born in Bay Ridge and raised in Long Island before spending almost the last two decades back in South Brooklyn, his palate embraces the blue-collar side of the borough’s foodscape, with a special taste for old-school red sauce Italian eateries and hearty sandwich spots. Tone unapologetically rides for his Italian-American roots, having previously flexed his pizza expertise by proudly claiming, “L&B Spumoni Gardens got the best Sicilian.”
So with Tone’s hip-hop and food credentials all in check, he took time out from chowing down on his own signature sandwich—a meatball hero but with fontina cheese instead of mozzarella, and “ordered Tone Tank-style”—to discuss his heritage and map out an essential guide to authentic old-school Brooklyn eateries. Be warned: This is heavy-duty grub built for those with an Italian power gut.
Here are Tone Tank’s tips for eating like a true Brooklynite.
Submit to the dark-haired sirens who serve Sicilian rice balls.
Tone Tank says: “For all these places, I go for for one particular dish. At Joe’s of Avenue U (287 Ave U, Gravesend, Brooklyn; 718-449-9285) it’s for their rice ball. It’s a Sicilian spot—I‘m Sicilian too—and the vibe is great. They’ve got the little Sicilian puppets, the marionettes, and maps of Sicily everywhere. I’ve never been to Sicily, but Joe’s of Avenue U is how I’d envision it.
The rice balls are just so good, man. They have them in a bowl with the sauce on it and with grated cheese—it’s just beautiful. I think they taste so good because Italy itself wasn’t a country until the early-1900s. It was just a bunch of provinces that land barons owned. So with Sicily, a lot of people passed through there: the Arabs, the Spanish, the French, the Greeks. So you have all of those different influences and I think it’s reflected in the food.
I also like all the waitresses they have at Joe’s. They’re all dark-haired. Even on the wall in the bathroom, someone one time wrote, ‘Yo, the waitresses with the dark hair are hot!’ No shade to the non-dark-haired waitresses there, but the dark-haired waitresses are hot!”
Cultivate your “Italian power gut.”
Tone Tank says: “Obviously, L&B Spumoni Gardens (2725 86th St, Gravesend, Brooklyn; 718-449-1230) has the best Sicilian pizza. I was just there a couple of days ago with [the producer] Scott Thorough and his lady, and we actually didn’t go for the pizza. There’s the to-go pizza window, on the left there’s the Italian ices window, then in between them there’s an official expensive sit-down restaurant. Last time I got a shrimp-parm hero and it was really good. The shrimp is really high quality there, and they’re giant. Usually at the restaurant I get shrimp and linguine.
But the square [slice] at Spumoni—it’s a totally different texture to your round pizza. Its thick cheese is under the sauce and it kindof merges with the bread. Me and my girl will buy like a half pie and split it—and that’s like one foot by two feet. One time we did that and I think I ate like four squares and then made ice-cream sundaes after. Having a girlfriend is bad for your diet! The food all goes to my gut. I’m in shape on the shoulders and that, but it all goes to my gut.
Photo: Yelp/Hungry K.
If you go to L&B in the summertime, you’ll see these guys that are jacked, but they have what I call the Italian power gut. I think a lot of their power comes from their gut and if they didn’t have a gut, they would not be as strong. The Italian power gut is like Samson’s hair, but for Italians in Brooklyn. So there’s a six-pack under there, and your shoulders and chest are jacked, but it’s not pretty—you’re not gonna be doing any Calvin Klein modeling, but you can fuck somebody up or lift heavy stuff.”
Remember Friday is fish day.
Tone Tank says: “The thing about Defonte’s Sandwich Shop (379 Columbia St, Red Hook, Brooklyn; 718-625-8052) is you wanna go on a Friday when they do seafood. They serve a fried-shrimp, fried-calamari parmesan on a hero, which is what I always get. But there’s a small window of time when this happens. If you show up there at 2:30 or 3pm, they’ll probably run out, so you want to be there at noon. They serve the seafood sandwich only on Fridays because Italians have a Catholic fish thing about Fridays—I remember something about that as a kid.
In recent history, there was also a spot called Catene’s on 9th Street and 4th Avenue that was open until about five years ago. They had the best seafood combo special, which was shrimp and calamari in marinara with the medium hot pepper sauce on it. But they closed, so Defonte’s replaces that for me.”
Respect the black-magic qualities of dim sum.
Tone Tank says: “Baje One from Junk Science put me onto East Harbor Seafood Palace (714 65th St, Dyker Heights, Brooklyn; 718-765-0098) years ago. The place has had a few different names. Once in a while, Baje would have a rental car left over from a trip he took, and he’d pick a few of us up and we’d go search for a surprise dim-sum spot. He’d always find a a place in Queens or way out in Brooklyn.
East Harbor is like a giant banquet hall—like, it’s half a block. The walls are red and they have these giant gold dragon sculptures, and there are these little old Chinese ladies and they hustle you, man. They’re like, “Yes, more, two, three?” It feels like the stock exchange before computers, you know? “Buy, buy! Sell!” It’s a real hustle and it’s part of the enjoyment. It’s like Chinese black magic. I make it a game like, “No, no, no… yeah, yeah, no, yeah!” It’s great to go here with five people.
Photo: Yelp/Shirley L.
They have the carts so you can see what dim sum you’re getting. If you go to some of the more famous spots in Manhattan, you have to order off a menu and you don’t get to see it. I like to see and order off a cart. My favorite shit they got is a pastry at the end, a dessert that’s like a custard but they call it a pineapple roll.”
Pay respect to the O.G. roast beef.
Tone Tank says: “The roast-beef sandwich at Brennan and Carr (3432 Nostrand Ave, Midwood, Brooklyn; 718-646-9559) is like if Arby’s wasn’t shit. When I was young, Arby’s was great, then I had one a year ago and it was totally disgusting. So this is like a quality roast-beef sandwich that you dip in the sauce, man. It’s all the way the fuck out there in Brooklyn, near Sheepshead Bay, and they’re not open on Easter or any Catholic holiday. I’ve been out there on those days before only to find out they’re closed.
When you get the roast-beef sandwich, you dip it in the sauce. The sandwich doesn’t fall apart when you dip it—it’s heavy. I mean, all of this stuff is not healthy, dude! You know, I could be in much better shape if I didn’t eat like this. I said to my lady today, ‘I find it amazing how I’m in such good shape and such bad shape at the same time.’ That’s really the truth, and I think that’s kinda how my life is too.”