Manhattan Specials in Brooklyn
My Italian-American boyfriend and his Brooklyn family seemed to have an aversion to that final vowel sound that gave the Italian language its operatic cadence. Around their table, mozzarella became mozzarell’, prosciutto became prosciutt’ and ricotta became ricott’.
As the son of an Italian immigrant to the United States, I strained to accept this lexical reimagining. How could you take the names of such well-known foods and just chop off those syllables? My boyfriend explained that their disavowal of the vowels I so heavily associated with the end of Italian sentences was actually a central element of Italian American-ess—a way of taking Italian culture and making it theirs, equal parts Italian and equal parts American.
Over eggplant parmesan heroes and arancini at Ferdinando’s Focacceria, a Brooklyn mainstay for the local Italian-American population, we exchanged heritage narratives. I told him about my dad’s arrival from Sardinia in the early 90s. He described how his great grandparents met on a farm in Brooklyn after traveling across the ocean in the early 20th century.
With a stomach full of Sicilian-American specialties, I flagged down the waiter and asked for my usual post-lunch espresso. Instead, my boyfriend interjected and ordered us two Manhattan Specials. I watched as the waiter returned with two cups I had watched him fill at the soda fountain. The bubbly brown drink looked like something closer to a Coke. I opened my mouth to protest.
Try it, the waiter urged. He told us it was a recipe from 1895, and claimed they were the only restaurant in New York to serve it from the fountain. The Manhattan Special is espresso mixed with seltzer water—an Italian-American specialty.
The marriage of the bitter espresso with a syrupy taste and bubbly fizz was unorthodox, but playful. The seltzer water provided something distinctly new, something distinctly New York. I laughed, picturing my family across the Atlantic pouring their tiny cups of espresso into large plastic glasses of seltzer. My boyfriend tilted his cup towards me. Salut, I offered. Salut, he responded and downed the rest of his drink.