The Ficus of Kings County

ficusThe fruit of Italian immigrant labor does grow in Brooklyn, and for once we’re not talking about Sicilian-slice joints or a Dyker Heights pasticceria. We mean figs: those plump and purple orbs—soft and rosy pink inside—ripe with that particular sensual Mediterranean sweetness and plenty of myth.

(At least the leaves, used by Adam and Eve, the story goes, to maintain their modesty.)

In the parts of Southern Italy from whence most of Brooklyn’s Italian immigrants came, growing your own (along with brewing your own, curing your own and canning your own) was a way of life. And, thus, dotting the spacious sideyards and back gardens of the borough’s longstanding Italian enclaves—Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Carroll Gardens, East Williamsburg—are not just thickets of basil and tomatoes, but fig trees with thick trunks three generations old and years of service supplying fruit to their caretakers.

One Ficus carica in particular has a culinary pedigree: It grows in the Bensonhurst backyard of Viola DiPalo, the matriarch behind DiPalo’s Fine Foods, the famous 99-year-old Italian foods shop—it started as an Italian latteria, and cheese is still their specialty—that’s stood in Manhattan’s so-called Little Italy near the corner of Mott and Grand for five generations. The family literally put down roots in Brooklyn: Viola, now 80, planted the tree with her late husband, Sam, many decades ago and today it’s too thick at the base to wrap your arms around.

The tree has survived wet springs, drought-ridden summers, a blast of Brooklyn lightning that once burned it down to the ground and, lately, Viola admits, a teeny bit of neglect: It’s not so easy for her to pluck the figs from the top-most limbs as it once was. (Though something like a mop handle, she’ll demonstrate to visitors, works nicely.) Even so, each September her figs ripen from grassy green to a dusty deep purple, succulent and honey-sweet.

You can’t buy them at DiPalo’s, sadly, but frequent visitors like Viola’s son Lou—who now runs the shop with his siblings and his son Sam—get all they can carry in tubs originally used to transport DiPalo’s just-made mozzarella. And, by the way, there is a connection between figs and the family’s real bread-and–butter product, says Lou: You can use sap from unripe figs to curdle milk for cheese.

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Rachel Wharton is the former deputy editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award, holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, and has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and reporter. A North Carolina native and a former features food reporter for the New York Daily News, she edited the Edible Brooklyn cookbook and was the co-author of both Handheld Pies and DiPalo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy. Her work also appears in publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Saveur.