“With this finger, I tasted the world.” Massimiliano Nanni raises his right pointer finger while recounting his childhood in Rimini, Italy, where his mother, Lella Alimentari’s namesake, ran a popular restaurant. “I would sit at the counter of the kitchen and I taste the papaya, I taste the kiwi—nobody have a kiwi in Italy, I come from a place with the truffle—I eat the frog, I eat the eel, I eat the snake. We want to try everything. This was my childhood.”
Nanni, known to friends as Chicco, met his wife, Paola Cittero while working on an Italian aquatic TV show. He was a diving assistant, she was the production designer. This is a funny detail given the strong Life Aquatic vibe in the café they’ve created. Between Nanni’s normally red cap (today it is pink) and quirky demeanor, Cittero’s blue jumpsuit and the vintage toys and uneven hand stamped signage, I can practically hear Seau Jorge strumming Bowie tunes.
Nanni’s been in the restaurant biz since 1995 when he opened Piadina in the West Village. In the intervening years, he’s opened many other restaurants, including the popular wood-fired pizza superstar Saraghina in Bed-Stuy, which Cittero designed and which feels like a big brother to the more intimate Lella (325 Manhattan Avenue). Nanni left Saraghina in 2011 and opened a now-shuttered seafood restaurant before hopping over to Williamsburg. The location was intentional, just across the street from PS 132 where Nanni and Cittero’s children go to school. After school, the kids hang out among the locals, many of whom are on laptops. “We don’t like to say we are chefs,” says Cittero, “we just cook. We’re cooking. We are both food lovers. I’m a production designer, an artist, we consider this our cafeteria. We are making food we usually make at home, that we give out to our kids.”
Lella’s specialty is the piadina, a sort of Italian quesadilla that’s popular in Nanni’s hometown. Every day he makes the piadina bread, then stuffs it with ingredients like roasted seasonal veggies and stracchino, a luscious unripened Italian cheese. Nothing is fussy, just fresh ingredients prepared beautifully; a poached egg over cauliflower, bacon, and chickpeas. Potato leek soup with speck. Burrata with roasted beets and carrots. They also have homemade pastries, quiche, and salads, most often topped with a poached egg.
Lella’s vibe is laid back cool and playful. It is European-feeling and whimsical without a hint of pretension. Toy trucks huddle near a vase of yellow tulips. A battered metal crock overflows with potatoes. The tin ceilings are whitewashed, walls are lined with Italian goods, books, an old scale. Art magazines and vintage action figures are scattered about. Lella is warm and chummy, just four sun-drenched booths and a communal table.
One of my favorite design elements is the handy takeaway window. “We sell the coffee by the window and we get all the people with dogs,” says Cittero. “Bike. Stroller. For me, it was like decoration, but we get the dog community.”
Nanni is already dreaming of his next venture: to host a program training former convicts as pizzaiolos. He’s eyeing a location in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard. “The Pizzaiolo was teaching to the penitentiary in my town. These men, what they went through, most of the time it’s really traumatic. They need to be working, working, working. They will learn fast. It will help them.”
“Art, food and a lot of love,” Cittero says as she glances at Nanni who is in the kitchen dancing to The Human League. “We keep busy.” She smiles and looks out the window. “And just look at this beautiful light.”
As 2016 came to an end, Michelin-starred Luksus shut its doors in the back room of Tørst (615 Manhattan Ave), adding to the pile of restaurant closings in our area. For a moment it seemed that Tørst would revert entirely to a Nordic beer bar with a few bites. But all hope is not lost, Chef Jesus “Chuy” Cervantes, who worked at Cosme before spending two years under Chef Burns at Luksus, was ready to over the food program at Tørst and bring it to the next level. A recent lunch—yes, Tørst is open for lunch—showed there are still many Nordic influences on the expanded menu along with some quite delectable bread, but now they also have excellent takes on regular bar food.Continue reading →
The triangular East Williamsburg restaurant sits along the BQE (not so picturesque) but once through the wide wood doors of Llama Inn (50 Withers St), the wrap around windows, hanging garden and welcoming bar will make the location escape you. Just named one of the Top New York restaurants of 2016 by The New York Times and honored with Michelin Bib Gourmand status, this just year-old restaurant is making its mark beyond Brooklyn and putting this overlooked corner on the map. Continue reading →
Most Brooklynites would probably consider themselves qualified to judge a slice of pizza—it’s a skill we’ve all honed over years of hard New York living. When we take that first bite of cheezy ‘za, we’re able to make a detailed analysis in a matter of seconds: we subconsciously measure the thickness of the the slice, the crust’s crispiness, the ratio of the sauce to grease to cheese. And whenever we travel outside of the city, we generally snub our noses at pizza from other places; it can’t possibly be as good as a legit New York slice.
Now, pizza lovers will have another option to choose from on Graham Avenue that’s going to challenge fans of Carmine’s and Tony’s. And if you can get over the fact that this pizza comes to us via Portland, Oregon, then Sizzle Pie (457 Graham Ave.) might become your new favorite neighborhood slice joint. Sizzle’s got a variety of interesting pies (among others, The Gold Ring: white truffle, oil, goat cheese and green onion, and The Stolen Firebird: hatch green chiles, eggs, bacon and hashbrowns) as well as a wide range of vegan and gluten free options. And as far as we know, they’re the only place where you’re able to get a half slice—perfect for when you’ve already had two slices and want just a taste of another slice but don’t want to feel over-the-top full. They’re also serving beer and wine, and by summertime the back patio will be fully open and bumpin’. Check ’em out and decide for yourself who’s got the best cheese slice—Carmine’s, Tony’s or the Portland wild card that is Sizzle.
Sizzle Pie | 457 Graham Avenue
11am-3am Sunday thru Thursday, 11am-4am Friday & Saturday
The neighborhood’s latest spot for swanky travelers to rest their head, The Williamsburg Hotel (96 Wythe Ave.), has partially opened over the past few weeks. Two of the eight floors of the hotel are currently open for booking, and the downstairs bar (with rainbow string art by the hottest guy in installations, HOTTEA) is open for drinks and pastries. We got to check out their tea service menu (available Friday through Sunday from 12-5pm), with baked goods by Bushwick’s Brooklyn Bread Lab.
You can enter the lobby bar by going down the concrete stairs in front of the hotel, or from the street level by heading down a spiral staircase once inside. The designers deserve kudos for the large windows at the front of the bar—there’s actually a lot of light that comes in despite it being subterranean. The vibe is cozy, with velvet banquettes, a soft wood floor, and vintage gold picture frames making a chevron pattern around the bar. The hotel was designed by Michaelis Boyd, who also designed the Soho House Berlin, which I’ve been inside and it makes sense; both The Williamsburg Hotel and Soho House Berlin are filled with teal tones, wood, and exude an upscale yet warm, rustic feel. And this jives with the character of the neighborhood, if Williamsburg’s identity can even be defined by anything these days. Continue reading →
Sundays normally bring brunch to mind for any New Yorker. Sunday in Brooklyn (348 Wythe Ave.) is much more than that. Open daily for brunch, lunch and dinner this tri-level restaurant is like a fashion house of food. At “Sunday” there is creative use of fresh ingredients—even the scraps are utilized in new dishes, drinks and marketplace items. The restaurant opened for dinner in November, rolled out brunch shortly after and opened the marketplace in December. So yes, something good did happen in 2016. The marketplace features a takeout menu and pantry items to make any home chef take their game up a notch. Chef Jaime Young is passionate about sustainability at Sunday: “The marketplace gives us the opportunity to utilize everything that we’re buying…it kind goes with our whole ethos of trying to utilize as much as we can in this restaurant.”
If you’ve exited the Graham Avenue L station recently, a tiny newcomer tucked away next to the corner bodega and behind a knockout set of art deco doors may have caught your eye. Little King (749 Metropolitan Ave.) has been quietly open for the past several weeks, nestled inside an elfin den that actually feels like it’s just the right size. It’s perfectly cozy, and to those nearby should become a favorite neighborhood spot. Given Graham Avenue’s recently changing landscape—late October saw the closure of Oak Wine Bar, soon Daddy’s is shuttering (and we hear Mother’s is not far behind)—in addition to a handful of empty storefronts, the area could use an additional post-work friendly local joint to wind down in and meet up with friends. Or even a good place to meet a Tinder date—Little King’s style is dressed to impress yet worn and approachable, so it fits the first date bill.
Inside Little King—the timeless vintage interior impeccably designed by partner Christina Salway—you’ll find a careful selection of all natural and biodynamic wines, a full bar with classic-sounding yet original cocktails (The John Henry, The War Horse, The Stoddard, among others), and a tight bar food menu. Continue reading →
Behind the unassuming street front of Tørst bar, is Greenpoint’s most famous culinary secret, Luksus. This is one of North Brooklyn’s highest acclaimed eateries, yet humbly tucked away behind the beer bar, you may not know it is there. For two years running, it has held the only Michelin star status in the neighborhood, an honor it hopes to continue into 2017 after the New York City recipients are announced on November 17th. Even those who have ordered from the Tørst menu may not know that the dishes were created by world-renowned chef Daniel Burns, previously of Momofuku, The Fat Duck in the UK, and Noma in Copenhagen. The understated presence of Luksus in Brooklyn is void of pretension and reflects the persona of Burns and the cuisine. Continue reading →
If this bar had a theme song, it would be The Doors’ inimitable anthem to the odd “People are Strange.” Beer Street at 413 Graham Avenue embraces the bizarre. Their ever present sidewalk sign reminds me as I walk home from the L to “drink weird beer.” It was no accident that they were twice selected as one of the top 100 craft beer bars in the country. The narrow, intimate bar’s tastefully simple white-washed brick walls contain an atmosphere gentle and welcoming in a way that New York bars often lack. Décor aside, the best part is that this expertly curated beer bar operates without a hint of pretension. The bartenders will happily advise, educate, and guide a neophyte but never condescend. This is a different, elevated kind of service than other craft beer spots are offering and you can enjoy it without the fuss of other places (because that’s just not how we do things on Graham!). Continue reading →