Made in Brooklyn? This Tour Guide Shows How It’s Done

Gifted storyteller Dom Gervasi puts his show on the road with a new bus tour of the borough's artisans and creators

Tour guide Dom Gervasi with glassmaker Charles Flickinger at his studio in Red Hook (Photo by Arden Phillips)

“I come from a family of storytellers,” said Dom Gervasi. And after listening to Gervasi talk for a few minutes, you won’t doubt that for a second. Runs in the family too. His Uncle Tony was a barber, a profession known for its chattiness. Another such profession? Tour guides. This is the route that Gervasi took. A self-described “neighborhood guy” from Bensonhurst, Gervasi has made a name for himself with Made in Brooklyn Tours, which takes visitors behind the scenes at small manufacturers in Dumbo, Red Hook and Williamsburg on three-hour, $35 walking tours. Thanks to Gervasi’s big personality and voluminous inventory of fun facts, 98% of customers (many of them Brooklynites) give the tours a five-star rating on TripAdvisor

Starting this Saturday, Gervasi is upping his game by launching a monthly bus tour to cover a lot more places. The four-hour, $80 tour will travel from Downtown Brooklyn to Red Hook to Gowanus and Dumbo, with stops along the way. The bus tour is based around the concept of “make and mingle,” said Gervasi, who guides every tour himself. While many organized tours have can a stiff and commercial feel, Gervasi aims for the opposite. “These tours are taking a casual, welcoming approach–that’s what Brooklyn is about. Posh and Brooklyn don’t belong together. Brooklyn is a community of neighborhoods,” said Gervasi.

Molds for lighting and other fixtures at Flickinger Glassworks (Photo by Arden Phillips)

Gervasi got into the tour-guide business when, after working for 16 years on the sales side of technology producers, his employer got into financial trouble and laid him off. “After, I got on my bike and explored Brooklyn with fresh eyes,” he told an interviewer just after launching his company. He was determined to find the locations of some of the famous brands that started in Brooklyn–names like Sweet’N Low, Eskimo Pie, Pfizer pharmaceuticals, Mack trucks, Benjamin Moore paint, Corning Glass, Domino Sugar–which led to his Made in Brooklyn theme.

At the time Gervasi was researching his idea, he learned that only about 15% of tourists visiting New York City explored Brooklyn. When he heard this statistic, he thought to himself, “I’ve got to do something.” It’s a big market: last year, a record 60.3 million visitors came to the city.

Walking-tour customers at a stop on Made in Brooklyn Tours (Photo courtesy of Made in Brooklyn Tours)

While Gervasi considers the names and locations of his favorite artisans to be proprietary secrets, he invited The Bridge along on a sneak preview of his new bus tour. One of the stops was in Red Hook at Flickinger Glassworks on Pier 41, where master craftsman Charles Flickinger has been running the operation since 1990 and made a remarkable comeback after being flooded by Hurricane Sandy. (He had started five years earlier in Williamsburg.) Flickinger’s process is to bend glass–the process is also known as slumping or curving–into an array of products.

The company restored the clock face on the information booth at Grand Central Terminal and created about 3,500 bent white-glass tiles for the Bleecker Street subway station. On our visit, Flickinger was in the process of bending glass bowls for light fixtures, which he does in a giant oven.

The legendary deli on a sneak preview of the new bus tour (Photo by Arden Phillips)

Tourists working up an appetite will be glad that the tour includes a stop at Red Hook’s famous sandwich shop, Defonte’s, which has been in business since the 1920s. Legendary is the fried eggplant, mozzarella and roast beef on an Italian hero with hot peppers, which Sam Sifton of the New York Times called “my most favorite sandwich.”

There’s also “The Jerry Lewis,” with mozzarella, fried eggplant, tomato, basil spread, and vinegar. Or try the “Sinatra Special”: grilled steak in a tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, grated cheese, and all melted under a broiler. If the weather’s nice, you can enjoy your sandwich outside at the picnic tables. And you can be sure there’ll be no awkward silences–not with Dom Gervasi as your host.

Arden Phillips is a New York-based writer and a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, where she received a degree in Television, Radio, and Film.