Per Ed Levine’s New York Times summary of the best hot sandwiches in the Five Boroughs, my friend Ben, his brother Joe and I took the LIE from Manhattan to Queens to visit the legendary Corona Heights Pork Store. When we reached a storefront-lined square, there was no sign signaling our arrival at the pork store, but there was a fogged window advertising “fresh & dry sausages,” “imported cheese,” “fresh pasta & ravioli,” “fresh mozzarella,” “fresh ricotta,” “pork chops” and “cold cuts,” a pretty good indicator we’d found our porcine pleasure palace.
Inside, there were no seats and one short aisle, shelves of Italian imports on the left and on the right…
…a display case full of snake-like coils of sweet and spicy sausages, all manner of beef and pork.
An older Italian woman was behind the counter; she introduced herself as Mary Lou. We asked what kind of sandwiches she had, and Mary Lou asked what we wanted. “You want veal, I’ll make you veal. You want sausage and peppers, I’ll make it. You want eggplant, we have the best eggplant.” Then she pulled out an old copy of Travel + Leisure, with a write-up of her eggplant parm sandwich, to prove her point. The Levine article was only a couple weeks old, but already taped to the wall. Unfortunately, Mary Lou was out of meatballs; with all the holiday business, she was too busy, and it would take another couple hours before she had time to make a fresh batch. So we had to “settle” for only four sandwiches: eggplant, chicken, and veal parmigiana, and sweet sausage with peppers. Mary Lou said she makes everything from scratch, so it would take a half-hour. That was fine by us.
In the meantime, we turned to the display case, got a container full of cured black olives and marinated black olives. The cured olives were incredible, salty and delicious. The marinated olives were bathed in phenomenal olive oil.
We also sampled marinated sundried tomatoes, items I normally don’t even like. Theywere slightly sweet and redolent of that great oil. I was blown away.
Mary Lou’s niece also pulled down a dry, hot cured sausage that was hanging from the ceiling and sliced it for us. The sausage was off the meter. With each disc I ate, the flavor built. My tongue and lips were tingling. Mary Lou’s niece also shaved off some provolone from an enormous blimp-shaped block that hung from the ceiling, to accompany the sausage on fresh Italian bread. Great.
Every once in awhile, Mary Lou would emerge from the back kitchen to tease us with sizzling trays of our various parmigianas, earmarked for residence in sliced Italian bread. She’d also impart a little history.
Proprietors Mary Lou and Frank Capezza have been married and have run the store for 50 years. They met in Harlem, and Mary Lou didn’t like him at first, but she came around. Maybe it was thanks to his mozzarella, which Frank makes in back.
We spotted Frank through the glass; he never stopped working the cheese, but smiled and waved. The only other staffer we saw was Mary Lou’s niece, who’s worked with Frank and Mary Lou for 15 years after migrating south from Toronto.
Frank sent us warm little mozzarella balls to sample. They were wonderful: elastic, warm from being pulled every-which-way in the machine, and delicious.
Everything looked and smelled fabulous. We saw two sandwiches already wrapped in foil, sitting lonely by the oven. Mary Lou’s niece was nice enough to hand them to us. “Why not, they’re yours.” With no space set aside to eat in the store, the sandwiches were placed on the counter-top scale and the offending foil unwrapped. We started with the eggplant, which was unlike any eggplant I’d ever eaten before. Very lightly breaded, not oily at all, the supple slices of eggplant were layered with homemade tomato sauce and thick cuts of pure, fresh-made mozzarella.
The chicken and veal were fork tender, especially the veal, which was simultaneously firm and silky, terrific consistency.
I’ve never had better veal in my life, at any high end restaurant. The Italian bread was nice and crusty outside and soft inside, very good. While we waited for the sausage and pepper sub, Mary Lou gave us each a toothpick spiked with a chunk of sweet sausage, lean, juicy, and fantastic.
Finally, the sweet sausage and pepper sandwich arrived. The sausage was very lean, with not a gram of gristle to be found, luscious, blended with big hacks of soft, char-grilled green peppers. What a combination. Behind the counter, there was a tub of meat to be used for future sausages, and there was scarce fat to be seen; they don’t skimp on high-end ingredients.
Mary Lou was very straight-forward, a quality not exactly rare among New Yorkers. When a customer called asking how much the filet cost, Mary Lou said, “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.” That was a conversation ender.
All four sandwiches, plus the dry cured sausage, olives, sundried tomatoes, and three bottled waters cost $30.50. Honestly, at those prices, and considering how good the food was, I felt like I was stealing. Ben handed her a fifty, told her to keep the change, but she wouldn’t hear of it, wouldn’t take even a nickel tip. Instead, she leaned over the counter and gave us each a kiss, on the lips! I guess we all got what we wanted.
The CHPS ingredients were so fresh that the food didn’t weigh heavy on our stomachs. We were still game for dessert. Next stop, The Lemon Ice King of Corona, a neighborhood institution that dates back to 1944, when Peter Benfaremo started selling ices. We ignorantly got in the car, but ended up parking a block away. The Lemon Ice King was literally at the other end of the square. A little walk-up window was underneath a sign proclaiming “ices with real pieces of fruit in it,” “in 25 flavors.” Ben, Joe and I sampled nine flavors. We passed the little white paper cups around in the chilly winter weather, freezing, but it was worth it. Round one: lemon, peanut butter, mint chocolate chip, rum raisin, pistachio, and blueberry.
We had to order lemon; it’s the only flavor on the sign. The original, and still reigning flavor was icy, smooth, and tasted like pure lemon.
Peanut butter was creamier, full of chopped peanuts, and no less delicious.
Mint chocolate chip was a little artificial tasting, and the chips were kind of chalky. So not every flavor is the be-and-end-all. But the King sure came close. Rum raisin was icy, with plump raisins and a subtly liquor flavor. Pistachio and blueberry were only pretty good. Still, at its best, Lemon Ice King is untouchable.
Figuring it might be a long time before we returned to Corona Heights, we split three more flavors: mango (pictured), creamy and tropical; fruit cocktail, laced with various maraschino’d fruits; and vanilla chocolate chip, with those same chalky chips.
For the holidays, the side-windows were lined with row-upon-row of festive candy apples: caramel, black, red and white. Okay, black and caramel might not be festive, but they sure looked good. Maybe next Christmas, after I work my way through the remaining 16 flavors of ice, I might even try one. What a great outer-borough experience.
Leave a Comment