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Roberta's: On The Privilege of Eating Delicious Things

​My favorite restaurant in the universe is Roberta's Pizza in Brooklyn. It has been my favorite since I began dividing my time between New York and South Florida in January 2011. I'd read about the place on Yelp, slobbered over its peerlessly intriguing menu -- the fascinations of which begin but in no way end with magnificent pies -- and hungered for the place for months, sight unseen. The day I arrived in the city, red-eyed and sleep-deprived, piloting a massive Penske truck through New York's post-blizzard highways, I took a nap, a shower, grabbed some fresh clothes from a box, and walked there. It was everything I'd hoped. 

Roberta's opened four years ago near the ugly, post-industrial border of Williamsburg and Bushwick. It was a warehouse, more or less. People sat communally at picnic tables and ate the products of a massive red wood-burning pizza oven that dominated the open kitchen near the front of the dining room. When the New York Times first visited the place, Roberta's was BYOB and hadn't yet turned on the gas: all non-pizza items were cooked on hot plates. By the time I arrived, the cooking had undergone a considerable evolution. As the front kitchen pumped out pies and calzones, a kitchen in back produced foie gras with caramel and black pepper; lamb cooked sous vide with transparent mint gelatin; sweetbreads with some kind of sweet and toothsome white sauce; agnolotti with black truffle and cheese; angel hair pasta with cockles; sea urchins with pairings undreamt of in Japan or anyplace at all beyond this once-desolate patch of Brooklyn.

But the place was still funky, and the funk was no affectation. It was as organic as the herbs grown atop the aluminum dining room out back. The restaurant isn't owned by entrepreneurs or pedigreed French chefs, but by young guys who like making food, drinking craft beer, and not being stuffy -- Chef Carlo Mirarchi, Brandon Hoy, Chris Parachini, and Gabe Rosner. A young chef friend of mine who briefly shadowed some of Roberta's cooks told me a secret: Roberta's management seeks out dissatisfied and under-appreciated sous chefs and line cooks from New York City's finer restaurants and recruits them with promises of creative freedom and fun. Although Roberta's turns out some of New York City's best haute cuisine, the kitchen is aggressively informal. There is often drinking on the job, and when standing by the gate to the "Employees Only" garden in the restaurant's rear, one occasionally gets a whiff of sweet indica wafting over the posts.

It was winter when I began visiting Roberta's, and the restaurant took no reservations. The usual 45-minute to two-hour wait was made manageable by the presence of a huge heated tent out back, equipped with its own rickety bar, at which one could order cocktails and beers unavailable in the restaurant's interior. They might serve hot apple cider one night, and steaming mulled wine on the next. The tent was crowded -- January before last was a cold month, and nobody wanted to be outside for long -- and it was easy to chat up one's fellow tent-dwellers. They were recently-minted locals, mostly: the painters and sculptors and dancers and tattoo artists who'd fled to the Bushwick border after being priced out of Williamsburg proper. They were joined by various with-it personages from Manhattan who'd heard about Roberta's from a friend of a friend.

In June, the New York Times gave Roberta's its first starred review:

... It was early evening on a deep-summer Sunday in Bushwick, Brooklyn, in the dining room of Roberta's, one of the more extraordinary restaurants in the United States.

... here is some delicate little purslane from a woman down the street who grows it in her yard, dressed in light goat's-milk yogurt cut through with a wisp of lemon zest, with a few curls of shaved aged gouda and precisely five blueberries. Here is a small plate of Japanese cuttlefish heads rolled tight and sliced thin, then seared, served with nectarine nectar and tiny leaves of purple basil, with thin-sliced jalapeño for zip. Here is a carpaccio of Wagyu served with gooseberries, peppery watercress and small dabs of caviar, an outrageous and impeccable combination.

These are extremely beautiful plates of food, artfully designed. The cuttlefish, in particular, would not look out of place on a starched tablecloth at Per Se. They are delicate of flavor, free of excess fats or salts, as pure an expression of new American cuisine as you are likely to find anywhere. It is shocking, and wonderful, to eat them in this cinder-block garage space six stops into Brooklyn on the L, a ratty old ski lodge built for bums interested in food rather than powder.

There are no cloth napkins or tablecloths at Roberta's, no comfortable seats. Christmas lights provide mood lighting, and urban detritus and flea-market finds the art on the walls. The service is excellent, however, far more polished than the setting would suggest. Roberta's may appear an unlikely cathedral to such culinary excellence. It is no less a cathedral for that.

The restaurant critic at the Times is the most powerful voice in all of foodiedom. Last summer that critic was Sam Sifton, a reserved man who seldom comes so unglued in print. And after he wrote about Roberta's, Roberta's changed.

Before, one would wait for one's table in the back bar in the presence of tattooed and mustachioed Brooklynites. Now it was Manhattanites, food tourists, families from New Jersey, celebrities. One evening I realized I was sharing a picnic table with Kristen Schaal, the "women's issues" correspondent for The Daily Show and one of the stars of Flight of The Conchords. (She played the band's lone superfan.) A week later, a gorgeous blond at the next table turned out to be Kirsten Dunst. 

The wait for a table at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday stretched from 120 minutes to 180, and sometimes to 200. And it was fine. The back bar was brilliant, and somehow Roberta's food kept getting better. With a journeyman pizza virtuoso named John Pragles manning the front kitchen, the crusts emerging from Roberta's big red oven were both chewier and char-rier than ever; more polytextured, more complex. One night the back kitchen brought me diver scallops covered in fresh uni, surrounded with black trumpet mushrooms and bedrizzled with some kind of tart fruit puree that I couldn't name, and when I took a bite I got high -- elevated immediately to that buzzing headspace that I'm sometimes brought to by music or art, when something's so crazily beautiful, fits so perfectly into the geometry of a moment that I'm either going to giggle or cry or both. It was that astonishing.

But Brooklyn is addicted to nostalgia, and seldom do people prefer the great things they have to the good things they had ten minutes ago. In northern Bushwick, the Latinos who've lived in the neighborhood for 30 years grouse about the bohemians who've lived there for 10; the bohemians who've lived there for 10 complain about the hipsters who've only lived there for five; the hipsters who've lived there for five despise the scenesters who moved in last year. And the Brooklynites who treated Roberta's like their own secret treasure loathed the arrivistes. Suddenly, in the nearby cafes -- the new Cafe Ghia, where the really with-it people knew to order the burger cooked in bacon fat; the excellent Northeast Kingdom; at neighboring Orwell Cafe -- one heard the foodies whisper. Roberta's was "overhyped." It had "jumped the shark." It had become "arrogant."

On Yelp, Roberta's lost half a star.

As fall faded into winter -- if New York's recent patch of cool weather can be so described -- the New Jersians disappeared, celebrity sightings became rare, and the weeknight waits shrank back to an easy hour. It was all tattoos and mustaches again. But beneath those mustaches, I now saw the occasional studied frown, or other looks of sly and knowing disapproval. One young man with whom I briefly shared a table, who was dressed like a cross between Julian Casablancas and a pimp from I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, told his date: "Yes, but I eat here ironically."

I do not eat ironically. I do not know how. I eat the way I wish I could do everything -- enthusiastically, curiously, adventurously, and sometimes ecstatically. Maybe it's because I grew up in South Florida, where people haven't been so spoiled by excellent food that they become cynical the moment a special restaurant becomes too well known to be useful as a badge of hipness. That's a smart way to be. Restaurants make for silly badges. They're for eating in. That's enough. That's plenty.

Last weekend, my father came to visit me in New York. I took him to Roberta's. We arrived early on a Sunday, and there was no wait. He gawked at his pizza -- the "Duck Hunt," with duck proscuitto, pawlett, leeks, rosemary, onions, chili, and nicely charred cubes of sweet potato. I gawked at it too. I eyed a bite of my lamb, cooked for 24 hours in a hot water bath while sealed in plastic (better to retain the juices), dunked it in transparent mint gelatin, and ate. I closed my eyes -- I couldn't help it -- and I had no idea who else was in the room. 

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Brandon K. Thorp

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