Enticing slice of New York
THOUGH the two New York boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn are connected by the fabled Brooklyn Bridge they might as well be a world apart, so different are they and so passionate are Brooklynites about their borough.
For too long, Brooklynites reckon, they've been hidden in the shadow of their more stitched-up neighbouring Manhattan. But Brooklynites take great pride in their achievements and their showy individualism. They'll tell you, in their trademark, broad, side-of-the-mouth, urban accent: "Whaddaya kiddin' me or sumthin? Fuhgedaboutit!" (As the sign approaching Brooklyn Bridge reminds the visitor.)
To get to know Brooklyn, I've joined Tony Muia on his "Slice of Brooklyn Pizza" coach tour, voted a top Brooklyn tour. We'll be covering around 65km, from one end to the other.
Tony was born and raised in Brooklyn. He has a lifetime of memories and personal stories to share, which he does in a sizzling, non-stop commentary over a four-hour coach trip exploring every corner of the borough, discovering its spirit and its soul.
One of five New York City boroughs, Brooklyn was created in 1683 and is the biggest, with 2.5 million people spread over 71 square miles (and, arguably, the one with the most character).
While Manhattan may be the place where some of the great American creative works are published, Brooklyn is where they might have been written. In countless movies, television shows, plays, songs and novels, Manhattan gets the credit but much of the creative substance is in Brooklyn.
Perhaps a reason for its unique culture is that Brooklyn is one great United Nations. There are Jewish, Latino, Hispanic, Pakistani, Irish, African American, Haitian, Russian, Norwegian, German, Lebanese and, of course, the Dutch, who were among the first here. All have left their marks on this cosmopolitan community.
A roll-call of Brooklynite luminaries will include actors Mae West, Lauren Bacall, Rita Hayworth, Mickey Rooney, Eli Wallach, Adam Sandler and John Kallen (Cagney and Lacey); writers Norman Mailer, Mickey Spillane and Arthur Miller; comedians Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Mel Brooks, Eddie Murphy, Phil Silvers and Joan Rivers. Even Bugs Bunny was from Brooklyn.
There's a little bit of Brooklyn in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and in the timeless music of George Gershwin and the enduring voices of Barbra Streisand and the Neils - Diamond and Sedaka.
Sport has figured prominently. Brooklyn has produced golfer Tiger Woods, boxer Mike Tyson, tennis player Vitas Gerulaitus, and basketballer Michael Jordan.
Brooklyn has also been home to some of America's most notorious mobsters. Five families - Murder Inc. - once ruled the borough. Notorious mobsters Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel were Brooklyn boys, says Tony.
Carlo Gambino was the boss of mobster bosses. From his modest Brooklyn home, he ruled the borough, the rest of the city and other mobbed-up capitals around America. Martin Scorsese's 1999 movie Goodfellas was about Brooklyn's organised crime scene.
"To live a long life in Brooklyn we had to see nothing, hear nothing and say nothing," Tony said. Are mobsters still active in Brooklyn? Tony is not saying.
It's still a tough but beautiful place to live, he says. There are rough streets, drugs, shootings and the everyday living on the dark side. For many kids the streets were - and are - their playgrounds, where their gangs are their families and they learn to look after themselves.
Our first stop - and first taste of pizza - is at Grimaldi's pizzeria among the cobbled streets under the Brooklyn Bridge. Tony knows pizzas and Grimaldi's, which was one of the first coal-oven pizzerias in America, is one of New York's best. It's a Brooklyn icon. At weekends, the line of customers stretches well down the street.
We sit at tables with simple red-and-white check tablecloths. Around the whitewashed walls are pictures of Frank Sinatra. Pizza chefs throw the dough to make their thin, Neapolitan-style pizzas. We wash our pizzas down with Olde Brooklyn root beer.
Back on the coach we go deeper into Brooklyn, admiring the red-brick, early 19th-century homes of Brooklyn Heights and the swanky, modern homes of Bay Ridge. Here, too, is the golf course where Tiger Woods learned his craft.
Tony stops the coach at places that have featured in movies. We follow the route of Gene Hackman's car chase under the above-road railway track in the 1971 movie The French Connection and track John Travolta's street walk in Saturday Night Fever.
We head out to the iconic Coney Island to turn back the pages of history. For nearly a century, peaking in First World War, the amusement park was the playground for New Yorkers. It fell into decay but is now being revitalised with new attractions. Its best-known ride is the wooden roller coaster that opened in 1927. It has 12 terrifying drops and six hairpin turns.
As well-known as the roller coaster is Nathan's Famous hot dogs, slathered with mustard and sauerkraut. Nathan's every July has a hot dog eating competition. Joey "Jaws" Chestnut set the record in 2007 for most dogs eaten in 12 minutes - a sickening 63.
With food again on our minds, it's time for another slice of pizza - this time the thicker, doughy Sicilian style, cut in squares, from L & B Spumoni Gardens.