Golden Gate Fancy Fruits has long been one of our favorite hidden gems in New York City, featured in our book Secret Brooklyn. It was a gorgeous summer day when we first met the proprietor of the Marine Park shop, John Cortese, who was 92 years old at the time and clearly a New York City treasure. Cortese is a World War II veteran who served in the invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge as part of the 551st Field Artillery Battalion. Cortese’s grandfather opened Golden Gate Fancy Fruits at 2080 Flatbush Avenue in 1939 and until the coronavirus crisis, Cortese was still manning it. Inside, the shop looks just like it did eighty years ago and when we entered, Cortese smiled at us and said “You’ve just stepped into 1939.”
Inside Golden Gate Fancy Fruits and Vegetables
In a very “untapped” way, we were introduced to John through a tour guest who attended our Remnants of Penn Station tour. That guest was Cortese’s grandson, who told us it was a story we should not miss. Now, Cortese’s family tells us that John just passed away at the age of 95. He would have turned 96 on June 19th. His grandson, also named John Cortese, tells us “”We lost a national, local and personal hero. His spirit, love and smile will live on in all of us. I can’t think of someone I’d rather be named after.” His son, of the same name as well, tells us, “I was truly blessed to be able to call the best man I have ever known in my life ‘Dad.'”
As a child, Cortese would do the deliveries after school and recalls getting surrounded by stray dogs who would surround the produce upon hearing the squeaking of his cart. He had a steel trap of a memory. He recounted the names of towns he passed through in France and Belgium — many that our French colleague Augustin Pasquet, who took these photographs, did not know himself. Cortese also new the model number of the metal detector he used in the war. Part of his job as a sapper was to identify landmines, a task he says he was chosen to do but was given only two hours of training, one month before D-Day. He was expecting a classroom, but instead the soldiers were trained on a live minefield.
He talked of the pre-war era as the “good old days,” and recounted the prices back then. Newspapers were two cents, a hot dog (onions, ketchup, and all) was five cents, as was a subway or trolley ride. Though prices have changed, the inside of the grocery remains virtually the same as it did when it opened.
The wood floor, with its narrow boards is original, as is the tin ceiling. Cans of Goya beans and Redpack crushed tomatoes sat on painted wooden shelves. Produce was displayed beautifully on angled stands and atop wooden crates that line both sides of the store. Two scales still hang from the ceiling, just in case of a power outage, said Cortese’s son, John. Original Sunkist advertisements, old-school product labels that John saved, and a plethora of vintage photographs decorated the store.
In the back room were some true gems: a pot belly heater, a wooden cold storage room, a Triplex gas stove, all still working. Even the exterior sign, with its faded hand painted lettering, dates to the mid-century. Take note of the old telephone number, ES-7-2581, a format used from the ‘40s to the ‘60s. The sign is not the original – an old tax photograph from the ‘40s displayed inside the shop shows one with Art Deco flourishes.
Though you might assume everything is kept for the nostalgia, Cortese had assured us it was not. He wanted to do redo the storefront decades ago, but his accountant told him that as a result, they’d need to get new floors, new stands, new everything. So they just kept it the same.
And as for the name? John wasn’t even sure himself. The Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1938, a year before the shop did, and John surmises it might be in its honor. Clearly past retirement age when we met him in 2016, he kept the store open to stay busy, opening at seven in the morning and having breakfast in the back room with a locksmith friend from down the street. He played music from earlier decades on his vintage radio, and though his dancing days might be over, he sang a tune for us. His son pitched in at the store sometimes, as did his grandson – three generation of Brooklynites named John Cortese.
“I’ve been around a long time,” says John, before handing us a bag of delicious peaches and cracking a joke. We knew when we left that there is and will never be any other place left in New York City quite like Golden Gate Fancy Fruits and Vegetables.
Cortese’s son John is a screenwriter and is in the process making his screenplay Tug of War into a full-length feature film. The film centers around Golden Gate Fancy Fruits and in February, a reading took place in Brooklyn with the actor Vincent Piazza (Jersey Boys) playing one of the roles in the film.
Discover more on Cortese and other hidden gems in Brooklyn in our book Secret Brooklyn, which you can get autographed by the authors!. Get free shipping with code STAYHOME. Next, check out the secrets of Marine Park, Brooklyn.