Off The Beaten Path: Sicilian Heaven at Joe’s of Avenue U

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As hard as it may be for SE:New York readers to believe, I don’t subsist solely upon on bizarre ethnic eats from Asia and South America. Every now and then I need a Sicilian soul food fix. My dad is Sicilian, but I cut my teeth on red sauce fare and only started eating true blue Sicilian specialties as an adult. One of my favorite places to get in touch with my culinary heritage is Joe’s of Avenue U and not just because of the name. With its steam table of dozens of dishes, it is like Disneyworld for Sicilians who crave grandma’s home cooking. Not only is the menu filled with Sicilian treats, reading it is a great way to pick up a little Sicilian dialect.

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After more than an hour on the F train my dining companion and I were ravenous, so we ordered up quite a feast. As a kid I ate plenty of stuffed artichokes and Joe’s gigantic globes are exemplary. But this time around I opted for cacocciuli frittu, or fried artichokes. And I’m glad I did. An ample portion of perfectly fried crunchy artichoke sections set me back a mere $5. They’re even better when spiked with a little salt.

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Next up was sardi a beccafico, or stuffed sardines. The name translates to fig pecker sardines and refers to the rolled and stuffed fish's resemblance to the beccafico, a plump songbird that gorges on figs. Poetic names aside, I think of these savory little morsels as the Sicilian equivalent of rollmops, that is if rollmops were served warm and made by a little old Sicilian lady. The fish tastes like it's been lightly pickled and is wrapped around a delicious core of bread crumbs enriched with cheese, raisins and pignoli nuts. The tasty little packages are showered with a few slivers of garlic. At $12 a plate they’re a tad expensive, but worth every penny.

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Purpu e calamari ca n zalata ($11.99), or octopus and calamari salad, brought back fond memories of seafood feasts I enjoyed every Christmas Eve growing up. A heap of tender tentacles, mixed with equally toothsome bits of squid, came slicked with oil and shot through with bits of celery and garlic.

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No Sicilian feast is complete without pasta. I chose one of Sicily’s most famous dishes: pasta cchi sardi, or bucatini with sardines and wild fennel. A platter of this rustic dish runs $12, and comes to the table steaming hot and redolent of anise. A thick sauce of sardines, fennel, pignoli and raisins coats the hollow strands of bucatini. I doctored mine up with a generous sprinkling of toasted bread crumbs and a little crushed red pepper and cheese. It was heavenly.

Joe's of Avenue U

287 Avenue U, Gravesend NY 11223 (bn. Lake Street and McDonald Avenue; map) 718-449-9285