Memories of a Brooklyn Basement-Why I became a food photographer


On March 15th, 1976 I woke up to the sounds of my mother sobbing. Lying in my bed, I knew that my Grandfather, Frank Dellisanti, passed away. What I did not know was that would be the beginning of the end of life as we knew it. For the first 12 years of my life, we had a routine. Sunday we would go to church then drive to Brooklyn. My Grandparents owned a brownstone on Bay 20th Street and Cropsey Avenue in Brooklyn, NY. For those unfamiliar with the neighborhood, it was primarily Italian-American back in the late 60’s and 70’s. My Grandparents moved to Brooklyn in the 1930’s from Manhattan. They had five daughters and by the time I came onto the scene most were either married or in the process of getting married.

My parents both grew up in Brooklyn and moved to Port Washington, LI where I was born in 1965. In the early years, the years of my childhood, we spent a lot of time at my Grandparents. To the Italian culture, family was the most important thing. My Aunts all still lived in the neighborhood and we would travel to Brooklyn 2 or 3 time a week to visit before I was in school. I remember the long drive past the airport, the landfill, Starrett city and finally Bay 8th street. Once I saw the exit I knew we were 10 minutes away. Sunday was a special day, it was the family’s day and the food took center stage.

For some reason, we congregated in the basement. My grandfather owned Puffy’s Bar and Grill in Manhattan (now Puffy’s Tavern) on Hudson Street. Before Tribeca became Tribeca it was a gritty industrial neighborhood. Many a Sunday was spent dividing up wheels of Locatelli Romano cheese that would mysteriously make their way into Grandpa’s car. Dock workers would pay him off with goods they no doubt absconded with to settle bar tabs. It was not uncommon to see all manner of food items cross the expansive restaurant booth table set up in the basement. He would divide up the spoils and dispatch his daughters to sell them to neighbors who did not mind paying half price for expensive Italian staples.

The basement was nothing special or so I thought. We never went up the stoop to enter my grandparent’s house. We always entered through the basement. Walking in the first thing we were greeted with were peppers strung up next to the furnace. There were always peppers. You went down a hallway and into a room. It had a kitchen, a very large restaurant style booth with a wrap around red bench. My Grandfather had his own table next to the fridge. Grandpa worked 6 days a week 16 hours a day. On Sunday he just wanted to drink Reingold out of a can, eat, play with the grand kids and fall asleep. Most of the Aunts married non-Italian men, my mom being one. I got the impression my Grandfather tolerated his son in laws, 3 Irish mixed, 2 Italian one of whom was a low-level mobster. You may be shocked to read this but most respectable hard working Italians have a very low opinion of the Mafia, and my Grandfather disliked that his baby girl was married to one. In spite of that we were family and so he was welcome.

My Grandmother Clara was the glue. She was five foot nothing, beautiful, thin and had a lot of class. Had she grown up under different circumstances she would have been an actress or a writer. Instead, she was the matriarch and man she could cook. The second you walked into the door it hit you, the smell of meatballs and garlic frying in a pan. She must have started cooking at 8 in the morning and by the time we arrived usually around 11:30 the massive amounts of meatballs were almost done. I would, of course, snag a few before they went into the gravy, I still love those the best.

The gravy, we never called it sauce, had been simmering for hours. The smell was amazing. All the different types of meat bubbling in that pot, ribs, sausage, braciola and last but not least the meatballs.

The first course was usually antipasto both cold and warm, cold meats, salamis, cheeses, olives, pickled vegetables, and bread. Then came a salad Iceberg lettuce with tomatoes, peppers, olives and croutons mixed with vinegar and oil with a little salt and pepper.

Then we would wait for the gigantic pot of water to boil. The macaroni, we never ate pasta, would go into the enormous pot box by box. She must have made 6 pounds of macaroni each weekend. She never used fresh pasta always boxed. Aside from the regulars 19-22 family members you never knew who was going to visit so there had to be plenty of food.

When the macaroni was ready it was served with a little sauce on it to keep it wet. The gravy was available in boats throughout the table so people could sauce to their taste. Some like it wetter than others, some like just cheese. The point is you had your choice. The meat was placed on the table in large bowls and bread was abound. The meal took all day. It was slow, nobody rushed we just ate and played and laughed and yelled and cried and lived. There was something magical that took place at that table. We took for granted that this was how it would always be.

After dinner, which was at 1 in the afternoon, the desserts and coffee were quickly put on the table. These people were rabid for coffee. They could not drink enough of it. Desserts were always store bought except for Easter. My Grandfather ate at his own table. He was always served first. The rest of us who were crammed into the booth would then be allowed to eat. It was out of respect for him providing the bounty each week. I can only describe the setting but I can’t capture the feeling of that room. What was interesting is that the same scenario was playing out in people’s basements throughout the neighborhood and beyond. Our little slice of family was not unique but is was very special to the people who lived it. I was lucky. My younger cousins never knew the basement. They were either too young or not even born. The first wave of cousins really got the flavor. For 12 years that was my routine but it was anything but ordinary. The reason I am a food photographer is because of that basement, those people and the love we shared around amazing meals long gone but never forgotten, how could I have been anything else.

Dedico questo alla mia famiglia ti amo così.

Photographer Bill Brady
Food Stylist Brian Preston Campbell