Bensonhurst locals are a colorful bunch. It’s time someone took notice. This is us, taking notice.
Dom Gervasi is the owner and producer of Made in Brooklyn Tours. The son of Italian immigrants, he grew up on the block where Mama Sbarro opened her first Salumeria in Bensonhurst. Dom is a licensed NYC Sightseeing Guide and has a great passion for the places and people that make Brooklyn tick.
Bensonhurst Bean: What were you doing before you were a tour guide?
Dom Gervasi: For sixteen years, I worked for technology producers in sales and business development. I sold information security and communications systems for companies like Lucent Technologies and SafeNet, as well a number of start-ups. The first company I worked for was a manufacturer – we assembled customized cables and patch panels. The last company I worked for had one guy in the back doing service on systems imported from China. I was laid off when the company was going through financial difficulties. After, I got on my bike and explored Brooklyn with fresh eyes. I made it my mission to find Brooklyn manufacturers like Sweet & Low and Manhattan Special and after plotting them on Google Earth the idea of leading tours with a Made in Brooklyn theme was born.
BB: Why are your tours different than other Brooklyn based tours?
DG: My tours celebrate the creativity, ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit of Brooklynites past and present. The stars of the show are makin’ it in Brooklyn. Makin’ it can mean that they’re literally making the pasta, ravioli and mozzarella. Or it can mean that their business is taking off with an innovative new venture. Made in Brooklyn Tours is about social entrepreneurship. My tours raise the awareness about how Brooklynites are makin’ it and even thriving. In Bensonhurst there are businesses that began over 40, 50 years ago. Despite the recession, dramatic changes in the ethnicity of their customers and the revolution of marketing in the digital age; they continue to stick it out by rolling with the punches. To many, Brooklyn is considered hip and trendy. However, the spirit of Brooklyn for me has been one of the underdog. When a new business starts or defies the odds, someone has got to know. Made in Brooklyn Tours is little more than a year old, so I can empathize. I consider it my job to champion their and our cause.
BB: How do you distinguish between the various neighborhoods of Brooklyn?
DG: Though self-serving realtors and property owners are quick to draw concise boundaries to define neighborhoods, the truer truth is that Brooklyn neighborhoods taste differently from one another. Williamsburg has a completely different taste than Red Hook. To confuse matters, the taste changes imperceptibly as one travels between neighborhoods. Go north past Hamilton Avenue and some might say you’re in Red Hook, but others say it tastes like the Columbia Waterfront District. Once I was at the American Can Factory in Gowanus in view of the Gowanus Canal and someone was describing how happy she was to be in Park Slope. My jaw dropped. Another time, after making a presentation to a class at St. Francis College a student living on Avenue U boasted about living in Bensonhurst. Who am I to argue? His attitude tasted just like Bensonhurst!
BB: What does Bensonhurst taste like?
DG: How does Bensonhurst taste? Today? It tastes like Szechuan raviolis smothered with red sauce and a side of rice and beans. It’s a mix of swaggering attitude, pragmatic thriftiness infused with the indomitable spirit of Rocky Balboa.
BB: What are your thoughts on the changing face of Brooklyn neighborhoods, from gentrification to Bensonhurst’s ethnic immigrant waves?
DG: It’s nothing new. We talk about the Manhattan-ization of Brooklyn today, but that’s been going on since before the Fulton Ferry began operation in 1814. And we are, after all, a “City of Immigrants.” There are the out-of-towners and the immigrants. My parents are from small insular towns in Italy, so I’m a first generation US citizen who grew up in a city of millions. I can accept that Bensonhurst is subject to the rapid change characteristic of the rest of NYC. While it’s difficult to embrace change, it’s a good thing to learn to accept it. That goes for the newcomers as well as the old timers. Immigrants may find it easier to open shop with signage in a foreign language at first, but it’s detrimental to the community as a whole in the long run as it serves to exclude the opportunities that the rest of the neighborhood have to offer. After all, the entire neighborhood of Bensonhurst was demonized due to the ignorance of a few hoodlums. I truly hope that something was learned from this experience.
BB: What is your favorite place in our area to visit personally?
DG: I grew up off 18th Avenue and still like to visit there. I know many who live and work there and pay tribute by making it the main drag for my Made in Bensonhurst Tour.
BB: What is your favorite place in our area to take tourists to?
DG: They’ll have to come on one of my tours to find the hidden gems! Honestly, the places we visit are all favorites of mine or they wouldn’t be on my tour. But I do know where to go for fresh pasta and raviolis and where to eat if I want great pizza, heroes and pastries.
BB: What are some of the most quotable reactions you get from out-of-towners when they arrive in the ‘Hurst?
DG: Visitors are amazed with the value. While Bensonhurst may not have a Whole Foods or an Eataly, we do have a wide selection of places where you can get fresh fruit and vegetables, choice meats and excellent eats for a fair price.
BB: What’s a secret place Bensonhurst or Dyker Heights place to visit or eat at?
DG: If I just want to sit by myself and read the paper somewhere, I’ll go the Caffe Italia at 6917 18th Avenue, for an espresso or a brioche roll with gelato during the summer and find some modicum of peace as the men talk to – I mean yell at – each other in Italian. When it’s open to the public, I may visit Regina Pacis 1230 65th Street to marvel at the ceiling.