While the borders of Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill and Carroll Gardens can feel a bit fuzzy, you know for sure you're in Carroll Gardens when you spot the uptick in Italian bakeries, restaurants and grocery stores. Named after the neighborhood's stately, signature front yards, Carroll Gardens was once the heart of Brooklyn's Italian-American population, many of whom arrived at the turn of the 20th century and found work on the Red Hook docks. As young professionals began moving into the Brooklyn neighborhood throughout the 1970s and '80s, many longtime residents moved out to Long Island and New Jersey. The neighborhood still retains much of its old-world charm, with numerous Italian food shops, restaurants, florists and funeral homes existing side by side with some of the borough's most buzzed-about new restaurants and casual-cool boutiques. Like most South Brooklyn neighborhoods, Carroll Gardens is a favorite of literary types, and its leafy streets teem with your typical tote-bag-carrying magazine editors—except these ones look a little less scraggly, a little rosier in the cheeks, a little healthier. It must be the fresh mozzarella.
A Sense of History
Lots of Italians = lots of churches. Brooklyn was once nicknamed the "City of Churches," and Carroll Gardens has its fair share. The most grand, St. Paul's Episcopal, was built in 1849 at the height of the neighborhood's industrial boom. And St. Mary Star of the Sea, built in 1851, was where famed mobster Al Capone married Mae Coughlin in 1918.
Italian Social Clubs
Although most of the neighborhood's Italian social clubs are long gone—or have been turned into record stores and cocktail bars and, in one case, a Dunkin' Donuts—a couple still remain. These members-only all-male clubs, with ties to various regions in Southern Italy, are still very secretive, but on warm days you might be able to catch a glimpse inside. See if the Society of Citizens-Pozzallo, on a stretch of Henry Street between Union and Sackett Streets, or the Van Westerhout Cittadini Molesi Cultural and Social Club, down on Court Street and Fourth Place, has its doors open—if so, peek in to see men playing cards, watching baseball and arguing in Italian.
Brooklyn men take their facial hair very seriously. And the fellows of Carroll Gardens, who boast some of the borough's best beards, have Steve Marks, owner of retro-modern barbershop Persons of Interest to thank. Marks, a former TV producer, took over the space when Sal's Hairstylists, a neighborhood staple for 30 years, shuttered after owner Giorgio "Sal" Zocco passed away in 2010. Although Sal's signature, perfectly faded wall mural of an Italian coastline is still intact, the rest of the space underwent a face-lift. Marks oversees a staff of 12 handsomely decked-out barbers and equally well-heeled customers, perched in the spot's six sleek red leather chairs, who get trimmed, buzzed and cut while sipping on Brooklyn Lager and Boylan seltzer to a soundtrack of '60s rock.
Carroll Gardens' restaurant renaissance didn't get going in earnest till the mid-aughts—with the majority of the neighborhood's new eateries skewing modern Italian, a hat tip to the neighborhood's roots. Italian eatery Frankies 457 led the way, opening in 2004 and spawning outposts on the Lower East Side and in the West Village, as well as Prime Meats down the street. The simple space, which boasts a lovely garden in the summertime, is known for its seasonal Italian fare, friendly staff, cozy vibe and the occasional celebrity sighting; we've spotted Kate Hudson and Neil Young on two separate visits. Longtime Carroll Gardens resident Mark Iocono didn't want to see his favorite childhood candy store get turned into some generic chain, so when it shuttered in 2005, he bought it. The result, Lucali, is a low-lit, intimate neighborhood favorite, serving some of the City's best thin-crust pizza pies, which GQ once ranked second in the country on its "25 best pizzas you'll ever eat" list. On the non-Italian front, Buttermilk Channel, named after the strait between Brooklyn and Governors Island just about half a mile west of the restaurant, serves comfort food à la Brooklyn; think duck meatloaf, buttermilk fried chicken and delicata squash tart with house-made ricotta. The folks behind the defunct Seersucker have a mini empire on lower Smith Street: Nightingale 9, a modern Vietnamese joint; the recently opened Wilma Jean, which serves up the fried chicken and Southern specialites that put Seersucker on the map; and Smith Canteen, a coffee and sandwich shop that touts a popular turkey and bacon on everything croissant. But arguably the neighborhood's most charming restaurant is Petite Crevette, a tiny, eclectically decorated French-influenced seafood joint located on the banks of the BQE. The menu is handwritten on the wall, and it's BYOB; so grab a bottle of wine at the Old Brooklyn Wine & Liquor Company around the corner and order the grilled fish special—always a winner and perfect for sharing.
If Little Italy is too crowded and Arthur Avenue too far afield, try Carroll Gardens, sort-of secretly home to some of New York City's best old-school Italian fare. Ferdinando's Foccaceria, a Sicilian restaurant more than a century old, has been making its signature focaccia since opening in 1904. The lighting is dim; faded black-and-white photos adorn the walls; and it's one of the few places left in the City that serves Manhattan Special coffee soda on tap. Order the pasta con sarde, a traditional Sicilian dish of spaghetti with sautéed fennel, onions, pine nuts, raisins and sardines. For more than 30 years, Carroll Gardeners have been celebrating communions, anniversaries and birthdays at Marco Polo, an upscale, classic Italian-American restaurant featuring gaudy Venetian paintings and a live piano player. For a more low-key experience, try its recently opened wine bar next store, Enoteca on Court, which serves excellent personal pizzas and small plates. A handful of Italian bakeries and grocers still dot the area. Head to F. Monteleone & Cammareri—the fusion of two neighborhood stalwarts, Monteleone and Cammareri Brothers—and Court Pastry Shop for your Italian bread, cookie and pastry needs; G. Esposito & Sons for its legendary two-bite prosciutto balls; Mazzola for lard bread; and Caputo's Fine Foods, known for its homemade mozzarella and ricotta.
A Quick Bite
For casual fare, pull up to the counter of Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain, a former pharmacy, which serves delightful homemade sodas (like sparkling hibiscus soda and a signature egg cream) and milk shakes, as well as freshly baked pies and ice cream sundaes. Across the street, Maybelle's Cafe (the storefront that was once Cammareri's, the bakery from Moonstruck) serves strong coffee and a variety of prepared food and offers free WiFi, lending it a college-coffee-shop vibe. D'Amico, a neighborhood landmark that's been roasting its coffee on the premises for more than 65 years, is another excellent local hangout. (Its deli sandwiches also happen to be quite wonderful.) The narrow, light and airy hole-in-the-wall known as Court Street Grocers features an assortment of eclectic grocery items—obscure olive oils, imported cookies, polenta from upstate New York—as well as prepared foods, like brownies, sandwiches, salads and mac and cheese.
A little bit of this, a little bit of that: Carroll Gardens boasts several meticulously curated shops selling a mix of, well, this and that—all located on an unassuming stretch of Court Street. Known for her jersey wrap-dress line Butter by Nadia, designer Nadia Tarr opened up Store 518 to house the treasures, knickknacks and tchotchkes that she's collected and been inspired by throughout the years—vintage clothing, bags, old-timey candy, comic books, housewares and strange buttons, all displayed in drawers and on tables, giving the feel of an old-fashioned general store. For the men, Olaf's, located across the street, offers classic secondhand apparel (of the dapper, not polyester leisure suit, variety). Think Harris tweed blazers, Brooks Brothers button-downs and L.L.Bean anoraks, as well as retro home items like salt and pepper shakers, lamps, cocktail shakers, typewriters and badminton rackets. And Black Gold Records, located just down the block in a former Italian social club, sells coffee (Rook Roasters), records (from the obscure to the super-obscure) and antiques (like circus posters and stuffed hyenas).
While Carroll Gardens is by no means famous for its booming nightlife scene, it boasts several very beloved neighborhood bars that can get quite hopping come the weekend. Local favorite Brooklyn Social, like Black Gold, is housed in a former Italian social club. Black-and-white photos of its former members adorn the dark-wood-paneled bar, and its specialty cocktails, dandyish bartenders, pool table and stellar jukebox appeal to the magazine editors and book publishers who populate the neighborhood. On weekend nights, you might stumble on someone celebrating his or her twentysomething-th birthday at Court Street's Abilene, a long and narrow low-lit bar that has serves up cheap beer and excellent wings to go with the indie rock on the sound system. The outdoor Gowanus Yacht Club, a tongue-in-cheek nod to the polluted Gowanus Canal down the way, is open only in the warmer months, when a boisterous crowd packs the picnic table for suds and hot dogs.