As gentrification and time march on, we’ve all heard how we missed the “real” Brooklyn in its true glory days (feh, we say!). You know, back when your neighborhood belied your background. When mom-and-pop shops dominated thoroughfares. When do-it-yourself was a way of life rather than something you blogged about.
But thanks to the “knife guys” behind Mike & Son, newcomers and nostalgics alike can, for a few minutes, take a trip to the Brooklyn of yesteryear as their knives are sharpened by one of New York’s last roving grinders.
If you haven’t seen Mike Pallotta’s signature “Mike & Son” truck, you may have heard the quaint clang of its bells. Or awoken to the whir of the grinding wheels wafting into the open windows of your apartment on a warm morning. Pallotta and his son, also named Mike, spend most weekends chugging around the streets of Kings County in their green 1941 Chevy truck, servicing old friends and making new ones while they put razor-sharp edges on “everything except hair clippers,” says the senior Pallotta. Boss and Princess, a striking pair of pleasant pit bull rescues, accompany father and son, bestowing canine kisses on dog-friendly customers and enjoying the rambling ride.
The truck is custom outfitted with grinding equipment more than a century old; Pallotta inherited it from his own father, from whom he learned the sharpening trade. He says, “My father was doing it! Forget about it. My grandfather. We’re from the 1800s!” Motioning to his son, the Brooklyn native adds, “This is the last one! Hopefully, he’ll play around with it.”
Grinding, though, is anything but play, says Pallotta, who lives in Bay Ridge. “People think that you can just go out and get a truck and go to work. Impossible. It takes years to learn.” Pallotta, now 58, started riding around with his father at the tender age of five, and began training his own heir apparent more than 10 years ago. “It took me four or five years [of learning and practicing] until I could come out here on my own,” reveals the youngest generation.
Grinding isn’t just difficult; it can also be as controversial as politics, in terms of turf and technique. Mike spent a few years caring for a sick relative in Florida, and upon returning discovered another grinder had seriously spiked prices. “The other day, a lady in the city told me there’s a guy out in another truck charging $25 each!” says Pallotta, who charges just $4 a knife. He’ll even help the folks who think they know better. “I had a chef the other day. I was laughing. I did such a beautiful job on his knife, but he comes back and says, ‘No, I want it like this [miming an excessive angle on the knife’s edges].’ I said, ‘Okay, but then instead of calling me every month, you’ll be calling me every week.’”
So what’s the right angle? “It’s a bit of catch 22,” says Pallotta, who also services Manhattan. “If you make them too thin, they crack. If you give them an angle more than a 45, they get dull fast.” The Vietnam veteran and former P.O.W. believes that the most difficult things to sharpen are scissors. “Knives, anyone can play around with. But you gotta know what you’re doing with the scissor.
Just 24, son Mike most enjoys sharpening mower blades, saying, “With lawnmowers, people are like, ‘Oh, man, I can cut my grass now,’ but with knives sometimes people don’t cook for a month!” His father, a retired police officer, says the city—and times—have changed. “It’s not like it used to be, but Brooklyn is still great. I’ve been all over. Ain’t nothing like Brooklyn!”
Father and son share the daily grind.