Remembering New Corner, A Perfect Old-School Italian Restaurant
A red-sauce joint so authentic it bordered on parody closed in Brooklyn earlier this month
In early March I began working on a story for InsideHook about Colandrea New Corner, an old-school Italian restaurant tucked away on a small block in the deep reaches of southern Brooklyn. It was almost a caricature of the classic red-sauce joint: 84 years old, third-generation family-owned, featured in a Scorsese movie. Unlike some other Brooklyn spots with similar pedigrees, most of which had been discovered by Manhattanites and tourists, New Corner had largely flown under the radar and was still very much a neighborhood restaurant. I wanted to give it some long-overdue attention, and I knew its out-of-the-way location meant there was little risk of ruining what made it special.
I had several meals at New Corner in the course of reporting my story. As it turned out, those were the last meals I would eat in a restaurant for seven months and counting, as the coronavirus pandemic shut down New York’s dining scene along with just about everything else. My article, filed just before everything went kablooey, sat on the shelf as my editors and I waited for the day when New Corner could safely reopen.
And for the first few months of the shutdown, there seemed to be little doubt that it would reopen. Like many eateries during the pandemic, New Corner pivoted to takeout, curbside pickup, delivery and anything else that would keep the restaurant connected to its community. But takeout works a lot better for shrimp fried rice or even a burger than for veal parmigiana or linguine with shellfish, and keeping the place open eventually became unsustainable. Earlier this month, owner Vincent Colandrea — grandson of Vincenzo Colandrea, who founded the restaurant as a small pizzeria in 1936 — announced that New Corner was shutting down for good, bringing a significant and underappreciated chapter in New York culinary history to a close.
My article on New Corner was intended to be an appreciation. Instead, it has become a de facto requiem. We’re publishing it today in remembrance not only of this special place, but of all the restaurants and other neighborhood businesses that the pandemic has claimed. If one of those places was special and irreplaceable to you, here’s hoping it left as good a taste in your mouth as New Corner has left in mine, even if that taste is now bittersweet.
In the recent Martin Scorsese film The Irishman, there’s a scene featuring Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro talking in a restaurant kitchen. Pesci, whose character owns the restaurant, mixes up a salad dressing while telling De Niro, not in so many words, that union boss Jimmy Hoffa is going to be whacked the next day.
That scene, along with a few restaurant shots of Pesci and De Niro eating dinner in a dimly lit dining room, was filmed at Colandrea New Corner, an 84-year-old Italian restaurant tucked away on the border of Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights in Brooklyn. It was the first time the place has been used for a movie shoot, which signals that Hollywood has finally discovered what generations of Brooklynites have known for decades: New Corner is very, very special.
“Some of our customers are people I grew up with, and now their children and grandchildren are coming,” says owner Vincent Colandrea, who grew up next door to the restaurant and is on-site from 9 a.m. until closing nearly every day. His grandfather, Vincenzo Colandrea, opened the place as a small pizza shop in 1936, shortly after emigrating from Naples. The party line, which may be apocryphal but makes for a good story, is that Vincenzo wanted his business to have an English name but didn’t know much English himself, so he kept the moniker simple: The pizzeria was new and it was located at the intersection of 8th Ave. and 72nd St. — New Corner.
Several expansions and renovations followed. The last one was in 1973, which has left New Corner as something of a time capsule from a bygone era. It’s easy to see why Scorsese liked the look of the place — it’s straight out of central casting, with knotty pine paneling, traditional-style oil paintings on the walls (many of them painted by Vincent’s mother, Marie Colandrea), a well-worn bar and a pair of enormous chrome cash registers that look solid enough to survive a nuclear blast. Waiters in red tuxedo jackets work the floor while customers tuck into generous portions of red-sauce standbys like linguini with clam sauce, eggplant parmigiana, and shrimp fra diavolo. The omnipresent scents of cheese and garlic and a low-volume soundtrack that leans heavily on old-school crooners complete the setting.
Nearly every New York City neighborhood used to have an Italian restaurant like this. Most are now gone, casualties of changes in dining habits, shifting urban demographics and the vagaries of New York real estate. Now just a few of the old guard remain: Bamonte’s in Williamsburg, Don Peppe in Ozone Park, Mario’s in the Bronx, Gargiulo’s in Coney Island, a few others. New Corner hasn’t always been included in that same rarefied club by foodie cognescenti, perhaps because of its low-key location, but it deserves to be.
A look at some old menus on the wall shows that the bill of fare hasn’t changed much over the decades (antipasto was 50 cents in the 1940s, and veal parmigiana was $1.10), and that appears to be fine with the customers, many of whom are longtime regulars. “I don’t come here looking for surprises,” says Joe Tobia, a retired Port Authority comptroller who’s been going to New Corner with his wife, Karen, for about 40 years. “It’s comfortable, the food is great, we meet nice people here. It’s our home away from home.”
Like a lot of the regulars, they often reflexively call the restaurant New Corners. The pluralized version, although technically incorrect, seems to be most prevalent among old-timers, who tend to say it with a bit of Brooklyn-ese flair: “Noo Cawnuhz.”
Joe and Karen have lived in Bay Ridge for years, but many other New Corner regulars are former neighborhood residents who’ve moved away yet still make the trip back, tolls, traffic and plenty of more convenient restaurant options closer to home be damned. Over here is a couple that drives in two or three times a month from Staten Island; over there, a group of guys who routinely come over from New Jersey. Talk to these people and they all say more or less the same thing: “I grew up in this restaurant, and I will always keep coming back.”
But while New Corner evokes the past, it’s not slavishly bound by it, something that’s most apparent in the makeup of the staff. Manager Declan Carr hails from Ireland, which is clearly audible in his accent — not what you’d expect at an Italian restaurant, right? Depending on whose shift it is, your waiter is as likely to be from Albania or India as from Italy or Brooklyn. And with the southern edge of Brooklyn’s Sunset Park Chinatown within walking distance, the restaurant is even considering having its menu translated into Chinese. It’s an impressive display of diversity, and it’s just enough to remind you that New Corner isn’t a time warp or a Scorsese picture — it’s Brooklyn in 2020, and that’s a good thing.
As for the food, the measure of any Italian restaurant is its marinara sauce, and New Corner’s does not disappoint. Well-balanced and piquant, it has a mild bite and just a hint of sweetness. It makes pastas, many of which are made in-house, reliably solid choices. The sauce also makes a great dipping accompaniment for the excellent fried calamari, one of several dishes that showcase the kitchen’s impressively light touch with the fryer. You want a salad with that? Maybe some meatballs on the side? Nice, nice.
Other items can be hit-and-miss. Shrimp tend to be overcooked, there’s way too much breadcrumb topping on the baked clams, and the potato croquettes would be more at home on a cafeteria line. But portions are lavish, prices are moderate, service is professional, and the overall vibe is great. Stick to the red-sauce classics and you’ll be fine.
The shoot for The Irishman appears to have put New Corner on the map for location scouts. The restaurant has appeared in two episodes of the HBO series The Deuce and in the recent Melissa McCarthy film The Kitchen, and there have been inquiries from the production crew for the upcoming Sopranos prequel movie The Many Saints of Newark.
This new on-screen notoriety — along with the fact that the Colandrea family owns the building and therefore can’t be priced out — would seem to ensure New Corner’s continued viability, at least for the time being. Vincent, who’s 60, says he has no plans to retire, but both his children are pursuing professional careers outside the restaurant business, which raises questions about New Corner’s long-term future.
“I would love it to continue, but I don’t have a succession plan right now,” he says. “One of my faults is that I don’t delegate very well. I still do my own payroll, in fact, every Sunday.” His son, Joe, who works in software sales but helps out by managing the restaurant’s online presence, sits next to him and shakes his head.
In other words, this third-generation family business may not make it to a fourth. For now, though, it’s a place that still offers an authentic taste of old New York. The newfound Hollywood connection is a nice bonus, but don’t go to New Corner because it’s famous — go because it’s special.
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