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Artisans: Dairy Queens

Leo's Latticini is more than just a little, old-fashioned Italian food shop in Queens: It's the best place on earth. A devotee pays homage to the mozzarella sisters.

When New Yorkers walk into Leo's Latticini, a tiny provolone-scented food shop in the Corona section of Queens, they no longer act like New Yorkers.

Cops stand patiently in line, caps tipped back, gobbling samples of mozzarella freshly made in the back room and handed over the counter by Carmela Lamorgese, Irene DeBenedittis or Marie DeBenedittis, the three women my wife nicknamed the Mozzarella Sisters a few years ago, when we lived in nearby Forest Hills. Firemen returning from an emergency run double-park hook and ladders out front, on 104th Street. Their harrowing rescue behind them, they grab a Mama's Special—an Italian sub made with fresh mozzarella—and begin eating it even before they're out the door.

I'm not sure I understand what happens to customers who come to Leo's—or Mama's, as it's often called—but the cause appears to be the exceptional sweetness of the sisters and their mother combined with the extraordinary goodness of the food. Leo's Latticini (latticini are dairy products) is a showcase of old-world virtues and familial affection. It is the most wonderful place I know, the kind of shop travelers hope to stumble upon in some remote Italian village, yet it's only a half hour from Manhattan on the No. 7 subway line.

When I'm under the influence of the Mozzarella Sisters, I possess no free will. I always drive to Leo's Latticini clearheaded and purposeful, my mission to purchase a few supplementary groceries for the household—a pound or so of mozzarella, a jar of meaty olives from Cerignola, a liter of olive oil from Puglia, a bit of scamorza (a mozzarella-like cheese perfect for melting), a tub of roasted peppers marinated in garlic and olive oil, maybe a container of ravioli in Marie's fragrant tomato sauce (the only pasta dish I know that's as sublime when reheated the next day).

What actually occurs on these visits to Leo's is that Irene takes over and demands that I gulp a complete lunch. I do so in about two minutes, while waiting for my purchases to be packed. She thrusts a fistful of mozzarella at me, followed by a small plate of Marie's extra-creamy chicken salad and finally an ingot-size hunk of provolone cut from one of the 75- to 100-pound dirigibles from Calabria that hang from the ceiling.

Sometimes Irene forces me to stuff the provolone in my mouth before I've finished the chicken salad, but I'm comforted by the presence of so many police cars and fire engines encircling the premises. They are manned by public servants trained to provide emergency resuscitation to citizens who eat too fast. I find that requesting permission to chew my food properly is counterproductive, because then Irene gets angry and accuses me of not liking the food. "When we yell at the customers, it's because we treat them like family," she explains.

I always try to make it to Leo's on Thursday, the only day Marie makes her roast pork and thus the only time all week that her sub stuffed with pork, fresh mozzarella and gravy is available. I am unable to look at a calendar and see Thursday coming around without trying to find a way to take the day off so I can drive to Queens. The outrageously savory pork seems to have hints of rosemary, but Marie refuses to divulge the recipe, and the gravy is of a sort that no longer exists, dark and salty and tasting of pork drippings, gravy from a long-ago time when gravies did not come from cans.

The rest of the week I tend to be giddy with anticipation, awaiting the arrival of Thursday, although the other days have their virtues (except for Sunday and Monday, when the store is closed). Roast beef and Virginia ham are both once-a-week items. Mama's Special, the best sub in the city, is available daily. The roast turkey with gravy is on the menu every day as well, and I have to admit it is almost as profound as the roast pork. Wednesday isn't too bad either, since that is meatball day. Marie's have the weight of puffs of clouds.

Marie is the greatest Italian American cook of her generation I've come across. Her white-meat turkey is as juicy as most people's idea of pork, and her pork is as ethereal as most people's idea of heaven. The sandwiches come on semolina rolls so fresh I have begged the sisters to tell me where the bread comes from, but they refuse. The fact that I can't get information on the source of the bread makes me suspect that it is from Brooklyn, better known for its bakeries than Queens. I don't mind that it comes from Brooklyn, if indeed it does, but I think the sisters worry that if it becomes known that their bread isn't local, the neighbors will think they are snobs.

The regulars—and it doesn't take long to be accepted as one—are all treated identically. The sisters' greetings are effusive, even if you're stopping in for the second time that week. Irene or Marie comes out from behind the counter for a hug, and the questions begin: "Where have you been?" is usually the first, as though you have betrayed their trust by staying away for three days. After that, the inquiries into essential family matters commence: "How's your wife?" "How's your mom and dad?" Next they check into the in-laws. I always regret not carrying medical charts with me.

Carmela is quieter, but I have always suspected that it is because she wishes to appear composed in front of her daughter, who sometimes works in the store. Carmela's daughter is still known as Little Marie, even though she is fully grown and teaches second grade down the block at P.S. 16. Also in the shop every day is Nancy DeBenedittis, the mother of the three sisters and the woman who inspired the nickname Mama's. Now in her eighties, she sits in her usual place, the single small table in the corner, where she slices open the long semolina rolls that are used for sandwiches or peels garlic with a paring knife. "Write good things," she warned me the last time I wandered into the store.

Many years ago some of the customers started calling the place Nancy's, but then the girls were born and started running around the shop yelling "Mama, Mama!" so the nickname changed. Nancy keeps an eye on her daughters at all times, trying to keep them serious, which is nearly impossible.

The sisters still laugh about the time they brought a delivery to the Food Network, then in midtown Manhattan. Irene, the most easily flustered sister—despite her work as a first-grade teacher—recalls that she became disconcerted when they arrived with their bags. "We got out of this taxi, here's this tall building, I'm nervous, we're late, I'm fighting with the taxi driver, there are all these men outside in jackets and ties. I said to Marie, 'How are we going to get all this food to the 31st floor?' and she says to me, 'Will you shut up! They have elevators. Do you want them to think we came from a farm?'"

In a way, though, the sisters did. The first Leo's Latticini, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, was opened in the late 1920s by Irene and Frank Leo, immigrants from Bari, a city in southeastern Italy. Once in America, Frank got a job working for the railroad; next he opened a wholesale ice and coal business. When gas heaters and electric refrigerators put him out of business, he decided to start selling food. In the mid-1930s, the family moved to Queens, which looked nothing like it does today. Now essentially a sprawling expanse of undersized dwellings with plastic awnings, fake-stone fronts and microscopic yards enclosed by cyclone fences, at that time "it was like country here, like a farm—there were so many trees," Nancy recalls. "For us, coming to Corona was like coming on vacation." And then she adds, "We felt that here we could better ourselves."

Newcomers to America still find their way to Queens, although the borough today is composed not so much of immigrants from Europe as from everywhere in the world. People from more than a hundred nations live there, and Corona has as colorful a history as any place in America. It is famous as the habitat of Archie Bunker, the rascally racist from television's All in the Family. Musician Louis Armstrong lived in a brick fortress of a house in Corona from 1943 until his death, in 1971. (Legend has it that Armstrong's fourth wife bought it without his seeing it and that when he first arrived, he left his suitcases in the car, telling the driver to wait, he probably wouldn't stay.) When Louis Comfort Tiffany decided to make glass in America even more beautiful than what he saw in France, he picked Corona as the spot to do it.

The place Frank and Irene Leo opened in the '30s was about half the size of the current store, which itself isn't very large at all, just a couple of strides from end to end. Back then Frank made his mozzarella in the basement. His work was continued by his son-in-law, Frank DeBenedittis—husband of Nancy, father of the three sisters—who had started in the dairy business back in Italy, bringing a cow from door to door and milking it for customers. The sisters grew up in the store, none more profoundly than Marie, whose playpen sat squarely in the middle. Irene remembers her grandfather worrying that the rope holding the provolone wasn't strong enough and that one day his baby granddaughter would be crushed by a falling chunk of cheese.

These days Irene and Marie make the mozzarella in a back room, under a tiny photograph of their father lovingly placed in an ornate frame. Carmela and her husband, Oronzo Lamorgese, are the owners of Leo's Ravioli, the pasta store next door to Leo's Latticini. With every member of the family involved in the business, Nancy says with regret that she feels her daughters are wasting their education. Irene has her master's degree, Carmela her bachelor's and Marie is only a few credits short of graduation. Says Nancy, "I feel very guilty. Irene had a good teaching job and made good money, and now she's here in the store." That's something of an understatement. The family is not only in the store during the day, they live above it at night—the Lamorgese family over the pasta store and the DeBenedittis family over the cheese store.

Leo's Latticini has become celebrated in recent years, at least locally. The shop supplies the food for both the home- and visiting-team clubhouses at nearby Shea Stadium, and this has brought about a change in decor. Although still cowcentric, Leo's also pays homage to the home team; during baseball season, the sisters often wear New York Mets jerseys while they work. Last season they opened a small sandwich shop in the stadium and named it Mama's of Corona. During games they sell Mama's Specials, turkey subs and Marie's new vegetarian sub—fresh mozzarella and three kinds of roasted vegetables on a warm roll.

On the night I went to Shea to look over this new boutique version of Leo's, a fan on a tour of ballparks with his son made a point of returning to the stand after eating a sandwich to praise the food. "We've been at nine stadiums in 10 days, and this is without doubt the best sandwich I've had in any park I've visited," said Aaron Booth, a lawyer from California. He told me he had yet to visit Fenway Park in Boston, but as a former Boston resident I was able to assure him the food there wouldn't be nearly as good.

Back in Corona, all manner of governmental agencies, not just the police and fire departments, are drawn to Leo's. Over the years it has evolved into an unofficial cafeteria for civil servants. Occasional customers include the United States Secret Service Countersniper Unit—proof, I'd say, that Marie's food rests easy on the stomach—as well as space shuttle technicians from NASA, who carry subs back to Florida with them.

Al Roker, the NBC weatherman, sent a limousine to collect a sub, and the driver firmly instructed Marie to pile on more garlic than she'd ever imagined putting on a sandwich. When she didn't hear a word from Roker, she stopped sleeping well at night. She was about to telephone him and apologize for overdoing the garlic when an autographed picture arrived.

The sisters even had a brush with glamour when Kenar, a clothing company, heard about the shop and brought in model Linda Evangelista for a fashion shoot. The whole family posed with Evangelista for an advertisement that ran in the New York Times and now hangs on the wall of the shop. They were delighted when a customer came into the shop, saw the advertisement, stopped short, pointed to Evangelista and asked, "How can I meet that sister?"

They have expanded the store, adding a modest outdoor dining area called Mama's Backyard. It features tables with umbrellas, white-painted wrought iron chairs, a cascading fountain, a few potted plants and a statue of St. Francis. In the past year the family took over yet another shop on the block, which they use for their burgeoning catering business. (The only setback in this thriving enterprise occurred when Little Marie decorated a six-foot sub for a bachelor party with pink flamingos.) They're so busy working that none of them ever seems to go anywhere: Irene's 1990 Mercury Sable has less than 8,000 miles on it.

Marie says she always gets calls from people who hear about the store and want to visit but don't know how to get there. (New Yorkers living in the other four boroughs can't find any place in Queens except LaGuardia and Kennedy airports.) The sisters, who will usually do anything for their customers, claim to be incapable of providing directions. "We tell them we don't know how to get here because we're already here," Marie says.

(Leo's Latticini, 46—02 104th St., Queens; 718-898-6069.)

Alan Richman, the restaurant critic for GQ magazine, eats a lot more subs than he should.

Published November 2002
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