Nino Pantano is an 81-year-old lifelong South Brooklyn resident and a man of many passions, accomplishments and interests.
He has lived much of his life in and near the Columbia Waterfront District, where his father, Sam Pantano, owned Pantano’s Shoes at 215 Columbia Street. Nino’s grandfather gave Sam the shoe store as a wedding gift during the depression.
In those days, before Columbia Street became cut off from Carroll Gardens by the BQE, Columbia and Union Streets were the main shopping streets in South Brooklyn. Stores such as Court Street’s Esposito’s Pork Store were originally located on Columbia Street.
Today Nino lives on President Street with his wife, Judy, not far from the old shoe store. It is filled with music and food-related artifacts from his past. Among the mementos is a photo of a soldier who once worked for his father.
Singing and Teaching Careers
When he was a boy in Brooklyn, Nino’s claim to fame was that he was champion opera singer.
“I was a 13-year-old operatic prodigy in Bensonhurst,” he said. “From the age of eight on I had a big loud operatic sounding voice. I was like Ethel Merman, who was a Broadway Belter.”
When he was 13, a young woman who was the head of the NY Piano Teachers and was the vocal coach at Victamon, said to his mother that she could make Nino a star and would take him under her wing.
“I began taking voice lessons with Bertha Lang,” Nino said. “She changed my life profoundly. She played me my first Caruso record.” He began to have a lot of success in many competitions.
Lang was able to get Pantano on the Ted Mack amateur hour in 1949, a show similar to American Idol, which he won.
“Then she read about a contest at the A&S department store, which is now Macy’s on Fulton Street,” said Nino. “It was to pick the most talented youngster in Brooklyn. I entered and I won.”
The judge of the contest at A&S was Paul Whiteman, once known as the king of jazz. Nino later sang on Whiteman’s TV show.
Lang got Nino to appear on many more radio and TV shows and he credits learning everything phonetically through her. He appeared in the Brooklyn Eagle and wanted to be a serious opera singer.
He eventually left Lang to sing for an opera coach in Manhattan, but soon gave up the maestro because it his family could no longer afford lessons.
“[The maestro] forbade me to sing popular music,” Nino said. “Whiteman’s secretary wanted me on his show every week. I refused Whiteman three times.” That was the end of his singing career.
While he no longer sings, Nino maintains his love of opera and writes regularly on the subject for the online Brooklyn Discovery.
Pantano went to St. Francis College and, at the age of 25, became a substitute social studies teacher. He did this for about 20 years and ended up meeting his wife, Judy, at one of the schools.
“I see my old students all of the time,” Nino said. “I don’t necessarily recognize all of them but they all seem to know who I am.”
“It is gratifying to know the students never forgot and they still treat me with such respect,” he continued.
When he was about 45, he stopped teaching and Assemblywoman Eileen Dugan helped him get a job at the NY State Workers Compensation Bureau.
Nino was also a key figure in keeping Junior’s Cheesecake in operation. Junior’s, which has been a key part of Brooklyn since 1950, had a fire in the 1980’s and a letter he wrote to the local Phoenix newspaper helped keep it open and led to him appearing on Good Morning America.
Nino and Judy went go to Junior’s after teaching when they first started dating, so the restaurant has a special meaning for them.
The Pantanos remember fondly the food vendors that once populated the street corners. They reminisce about how Columbia Street was busier than Court Street and remember seeing the last of the pushcarts, which sold fruit, fish and vegetables.
“It was very colorful,” Pantano said.
In the 1970s, Columbia Street suffered a major downturn. A sewer project was begun, and then halted midway due to the city’s financial crisis.
“They dug a trench about 15 feet deep and ran out of funding. You had this enormous trench. Stores went out of business and buildings collapsed,” said Pantano. “My father fled to Stapleton, Staten Island, where he opened another shoe store.”
There are still some businesses from the old days that continue to operate in the Waterfront District and Carroll Gardens.
Ferdinando’s Focacceria on Union and Hicks Streets, which opened in 1904, attracts people from all over who want to get Sicilian food, according to Judy. Sean Penn can often be seen emerging from Ferdinando’s, and two popular movies were set at the restaurant.
“In the 1940s, they made On the Waterfront, with Marlon Brando, there,” Nino said. “Il Postino: The Postman was a very popular film. Maria Grazia Cuccinata ate there. Ed Koch ate there.”
Nino and Judy think that there are about a half dozen Italian places that make the neighborhood truly what it is. In addition to Ferdinando’s, they enjoy Mazzola’s Bakery on Henry and Union, which is where Nino likes to sit and have coffee.
There is also Court Pastry, which makes the best cannolis in town, according to Nino. He also says that Monteleone’s, which used to be close to them but also moved to Court Street, makes the best ices and gelato.
Esposito and Sons Pork Store, on Court near President, Sam’s Restaurant on Court Street, which has been around about 85 years with the same decor, and Mazzone’s Hardware Store, are three other neighborhood fixtures that Nino and Judy take pride in.
Nino remembers Cafiero’s, which was a longtime Italian restaurant around the corner from the shoe store. It not only fed the gangsters, according to Nino, but also “the judges who were going to convict them the next day. They would sit just tables away.”
Cafiero’s was where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio dined as well as other actors, and is now an art studio.
Changes in the District
The Pantanos have lived on President near Columbia Street since 1985. “Before that, we were on President between Hoyt and Smith,” Judy said. “We were renting there. It has since become restaurant row. Now we are the old timers.”
They were among the first people to move to the block that they are on, when condos were built in the mid 1980s.
“On Opening Day, ours was the showcase apartment,” Pantano said. “We had Mayor Ed Koch here, we had Borough President Howard Golden, the very wily and strong Monsignor Delvecchio from the church, and Eileen Dugan, who was a magnificent Assembly Woman.”
Their home was the first phase of new development that would again improve the Columbia Waterfront area.
“For the first few years, our backyard behind the fence was rubble, broken bottles, maybe a couple of bodies left over from the gangster days,” Pantano joked. “Now they have built all around. It has become like SoHo. You have expensive beauty parlors. It is reborn but not the way it once was.”
In the last few years, things have come full circle for Pantano. He has been invited to various foundations to write reviews of up and coming young opera singers. And if you call on him on the right day, he will still talk your ear off about Enrico Caruso.