A first trip to Defonte's Sandwich Shop can feel slightly intimidating — here are counter workers with thick Brooklyn accents, working briskly and managing the crowd by slapping an order on the counter and then asking, loudly, if they can help the next person. It's up to you to determine whether you're next; your fellow patrons don't exactly form an orderly line. And most of them seem to have known exactly what they want before they walked through the door: a carton of meatballs for this woman; a hot roast-beef sandwich with fried eggplant for that man. This saves them from reading the menu plus the handwritten items on bits of paper taped around the joint. Many people, you'll soon notice, are ordering the potato and egg, which piles skilleted bits of both ingredients plus mozzarella between two halves of a hero. You can spot newcomers because they order their sandwiches large — a mistake unless you plan to feed a family or want something to take home. Most neighborhood regulars take their meals to go, but some stand at the counters, taking in old photos of celebrities while mopping their faces with piles of thin napkins. It's not hard to imagine dockworkers doing something similar decades ago. Defonte's is a multi-generation family operation. Nick Defonte, an Italian immigrant, paid $100 to buy the business in 1922. Back then it was a longshoreman hangout in Red Hook, a corner storefront that sold basic sundries, where workers would sit and play cards while awaiting a job assignment or to cap off a shift. For today's regulars, who work in nearby warehouses and at the artisan businesses that now call Red Hook home, Defonte's offers a glimpse of this neighborhood's past — and a bite of a once prevalent lunchtime tradition that's fast disappearing.
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