"I keep telling myself that I'm going to get out of Brooklyn. But then I wonder, 'Where would I go?'"
Allison Robicelli tells me this a couple of times during our summer evening in Bay Ridge. Frequent readers of this site may know Allison as a cupcake and brownie queen or a grass-roots humanitarian ass kicker. You might also know that she's a damned funny writer with her own cookbook co-authored with her husband Matt about to hit the shelves.
There's another note to add in this bio: lifelong resident of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, which seems just as important to her sense of self as anything on her resume.
Bay Ridge is where Allison grew up, built her cupcake business, and is now raising kids of her own. She's seen the neighborhood grow and evolve, as what was once a strictly Irish and Italian enclave is now home to one of the city's largest Middle Eastern communities. "This used to be the bar where I'd drink when I was 19," she says as we turn the corner. "That's where my husband and I had our first date."
I asked Allison to show us around some of her favorite local spots, from falafel to fancy wine to one of the better New York slices I've enjoyed of late. A few quick bites with a doomed attempt at restraint soon turned into a gut-busting reminder of why Bay Ridge is one of Brooklyn's most fun and inviting food neighborhoods.
The Middle Eastern Connection
"This place makes the best falafel in New York," Allison says as we walk into Hazar Turkish Kebab. "We get takeout from this place all the time. There's a lot of eating takeout in pajamas going on at home."
Hazar is an ocakbasi, a casual counter service restaurant with a grill for kebabs, a spit for shawarma, and a big showcase front and center to show off their meat. There's some pretty tasty falafel too, crisp and loaded with herbs, along with well-marinated chicken shawarma and a big plate of tender gigantes beans cooked with tomato and olive oil.
Nearby is Cedars, a pan-Arabic bakery gleaming with honey syrup, crumbled pistachios, and several varieties of knafeh and basboosa. The knafeh is best warmed up so its salty cheese base turns gooey; we preferred it to the cream-stuffed pastries also on display. But what really sets Cedars apart is its ice cream case full of dondurma, a stretchy Turkish ice cream with an elastic, chewy texture. Cedars is one of two places to get dondurma in New York (Victory Garden is the other), and they serve flavors traditional—bitter mastic—and new—blueberry, anyone?
These days Bay Ridge is home to Turks, Yemeni, Palestinians, and Lebanese, just to name a few, and Fifth Avenue has become a food shopping strip for them all. Allison makes a beeline for Balady, which you can tell is a market worth visiting as soon as you run into the ziggurat of olive oil or the vaguely-labelled, intensely aromatic "meat spice" at the cash register. (Yes, it is an impulse buy item.)
"Matt and I go on dates to places like this. We just wander around and see what we can do with all this stuff. We shop here and get inspiration for certain cupcakes." Balady may not boast the near-daunting selection at Sahadi's, but there's plenty to get inspired about.
As we make our way down Fifth, Allison points out new Middle Eastern business where there used to be vacant windows. And it's more than just food—clothes, hookah, and other shopping join the groceries and shawarma shops of today's Middle Easternized Bay Ridge. "We have to be thankful for them, because they're the businesses that have kept Fifth Avenue going. Without them so many of these shops would be empty or new chain locations."
Old Bay Ridge, New Bay Ridge
Next we visit a wine bar, which looks more like Park Slope than Bay Ridge, until you gawk at the unreasonably low prices on the menu and learn that co-owner John Avelluto has lived in the neighborhood almost as long as Allison has. "So have you brought the hipster invasion to the neighborhood yet?" she asks him as we step inside.
The joke sounds less ridiculous when Allison tells us about the protest that formed outside a new liquor store in the neighborhood a few years back when it dared to sell fancy wine. "People were afraid they'd take away their Jameson."
So the Owl's Head keeps its prices low, its wine interesting, and its staff more than happy to share as much or as little about your bottle as you want to know. John led us through an impromptu tasting of the bar's more interesting wines, not a dull bottle among them. The older couple at the next table seem to be enjoying themselves, too.
Such is Bay Ridge that just a couple blocks you'll find Leske's, the Scandinavian bakery and doughnut shop that's been feeding the neighborhood 50 years now. Their jam doughnuts are still good stuff, and a jelly version comes topped with a peanut butter glaze. Leske's is the kind of neighborhood bakery most New York neighborhoods aren't lucky enough to have.
As we head farther south on Fifth Avenue toward 86th Street, we notice more and more vacant storefronts. The iconic Hinsch's sign has been torn down and replaced with something that belongs outside a Rite Aid.* The looming Century 21 complex tells the story: a retail monolith that obliterated much of its small business competition. Again Allison points out how Middle Eastern businesses have filled in some of the gaps.
Update 8/15: Allison reports the Hinsch's sign has been restored, and the interior partially redesigned. The menu is now very Greek coffee shop, which she's found to be the best nearby thus far.
Just south of 86th is what Allison calls "the place where every night in Bay Ridge ends." This stretch of Fifth has its share of bars, Irish and otherwise. "When I was growing up you'd see some fighting in the street at night around here. That's our main export in Bay Ridge: drunk and belligerent people." On one side of the street there's a halal cart already drawing a crowd at sunset. On the other side, there's Pizza Wagon.
This open-late slice joint is where our Adam Kuban cut his teeth on New York pizza almost 15 years ago, and it's still turning out charmingly thin, crisp pies with just the right amount of oily cheese and bright sauce. It looks like not much has changed beyond the prices, and even that's pretty gentle—80 cent small soda, anyone? But even with a loyal following (drunk and sober) and a prime location, will Pizza Wagon be able to sustain itself as rents slowly rise around it? Allison hopes so.
Her hopes aren't without just cause. Hinsch's sign excepted, Bay Ridge seems pretty invested in keeping itself going without major changes. Unlike some other south Brooklyn neighborhoods where the core ethnic community underwent a massive suburban migration, Bay Ridge's Italian and Irish population is still, at least partially, intact. New immigrants have settled in and house buyers who've been priced out of Carroll Gardens are migrating south, but Bay Ridge appears poised to accept the new without disposing of the old.
We follow up pizza with dinner at Pho Hoai, a Vietnamese restaurant with a menu that's nearly identical to what you'll find in Chinatown, but with exceptionally clean-tasting pho and some well-prepared rice noodle dishes. Allison and Matt talk more about the south Brooklyn restaurants they love, and the craft food community they seem to have stumbled into. Alright, maybe the Robicellis will escape Brooklyn some day. But I suspect they'll be kicking and screaming the whole way out.