“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.”
Meyers Bageri’s (667 Driggs Avenue) first stateside bakery began as a Saturday pop-up, in the space they now occupy full-time—the former home of Margo Patisserie. Back in February, word began to spread of Saturday’s pop-up and the lines quickly followed. In late July, Meyers Bageri took over the space completely and has subsequently been introducing North Brooklyn to Claus Meyer’s brand of New Nordic Cuisine. Continue reading →
As the weather gets cooler, a warm cup of joe in the morning becomes even more delightful. Luckily, us Greenpointers have plenty of choices when it comes to quality coffee. I stopped by ten neighborhood spots recently and spoke to patrons, baristas, and even a few coffee-obsessed (and surprisingly well spoken) pups about why they like their favorite coffee shops!
For years the little triangle of land between Nassau Avenue, Banker Street and North 15th Street was home to a couple of weather beaten RVs and tumbleweeds of trash. Then one day, multimedia producer Francois Vaxelaire saw a sign. It was both a fateful one and a literal one, posted on the building across the street advertising the plot of land for rent. He had a vision flash before him that he needed to rent the land and launch an internet radio station.
Verb Cafe (107 Nassau Ave) reopened in Greenpoint last month, a year and a half after the beloved Williamsburg location in the Girdle Factory closed in the summer of 2014 — replaced by, of all things, an artisanal soap shop.
Owner Cisco Rodriguez is committed to keeping the vibe of the old Verb while bringing in new ideas, inspired by both his personal vision and the feedback he gets from regulars in the new neighborhood.
When I walked into Verb Cafe to meet Cisco Rodriguez, the first thing he did was offer me a bowl of quinoa. He’s experimenting with bringing the ingredient to the menu, complete with accompaniments like avocado, grilled onion, hummus, and tomato. The second, third, and fourth things he did were greet each customer who walked in either by name or by noting a previous experience at the café.
Champion Coffeemay have recently shuttered at 1108 Manhattan Avenue (due to ‘unforeseen circumstances’), but caffeine addicts have no reason to be be sad. Two new Champions are soon to spring up elsewhere in Greenpoint to replace it.
First up will be a new cafe at 142 Nassau Avenue, on the site of Sweet Fox, which has now closed down. Champion’s Talitha Whidbee tells us that “Sweet Fox owner Jean Marc was ready to get back to his catering life and away from the constant demands of a cafe so we bought Sweet Fox from him which we will remodel over the next month and re-open as Champion Coffee.” This location will be almost exactly the same as the original Champion (with a slightly pared down food menu), and will be opening around September 22nd.
There is also a second, larger space in the pipeline, at 1107 Manhattan Avenue, directly across the road from the original. “Due to its size it will be a little longer in coming to fruition, but we are shooting for end of November”, Talitha tells us. This location will have the standard Champion food and drink menu, with the addition of kombucha on tap from Mombucha and a few other exclusive beverages.
You know those times when you don’t set out to do something, but somehow it just happens anyway? Well, this is pretty much how Sweetleaf, Greenpoint’s newest coffee shop, came about.
“I wasn’t looking to set up another cafe”, says owner Rich Nieto, “I was just looking to find a space to roast.”
Rich established Sweetleaf Coffee with a friend in 2008, in a tiny shop just over the Pulaski bridge. Seven years later and there is now an additional coffee shop in LIC, one in Williamsburg and, as of last week, a new one in Greenpoint. Rich bought out his partner about a year ago and now runs the entire operation. He recently started roasting his own beans out of a friend’s loft in Bushwick, but as he started to step up production it made sense to find a roasting space of his own.
“I was looking for a warehouse of around 1000 sq ft, but it was almost impossible to find something this small, everything is huge”, he tells us as we sit sipping coffee in the brand new Greenpoint outpost of Sweetleaf on Freeman Street. “I discovered this space because I used to drive past every day on my way between LIC and Williamsburg, and although it turned out to be the smallest warehouse space I could find, it was still way more space than I needed. The building is in a great location, just off Manhattan Avenue, so we decided to use the extra space by creating a cafe at the front and having our roastery at the back.” Continue reading →
Well, depending on the extent of your hot beverage appreciation, you may wish to get along to the 10th Annual Coffee and Tea Festival which is being held at the Brooklyn Expo Center this weekend.
The event will hold over 80 stall-holders including Greenpoint’s own Cafe Grumpy and Miss Tea Organics, all offering tastings and info about their brand. Throughout the weekend there will also be seminars on subjects such as the oxidation effects of green tea, home brewing, tea blending, and cold brew coffee.
But if you do go near the Expo Center this weekend, lookout for dodgy sidewalk parking along Oak and Franklin Streets which, according to Brooklyn Paper, has started to be an issue.
The event runs 11.30pm-5pm Saturday and Sunday at The Brooklyn Expo Center, 79 Franklin Street. Tickets are $25 can be purchased here or on the door. A special ‘VIP’ ticket costs $35 and includes early entrance and a goody bag.