The best way to get to know a neighborhood? Eat your way around it. Welcome to Chow Hood, a series that Chowhound-sources the best food, drink, and markets in a place you should get to know.
In Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the flags tell the story—or at least part of it. Banners in the colors of Italy, Ireland, Norway, and other old-world homelands—often unfurled right next to the red, white, and blue—fly on nearly every block of the main commercial avenues, proud emblems of a parade of newcomers who've continually remade this harborside neighborhood since the Dutch West India Company staked its claim in 1652.
The oldest immigrant groups are hanging in there, though their numbers have dwindled, and Chowhounds can tell you where to find their best stuff from linguine to lutefisk. But more recent arrivals from the Middle East—mostly Lebanese and Syrians at first, Yemenis in the past few decades—have also taken a place at the table. A visitor who notices all the flags on the streets may notice something else as well: Apart from the Lebanese cedars that grace some storefront signs, the Middle Eastern merchants of Bay Ridge aren't big on showing their colors. Some identify their cuisine not by national origin but only as "Mediterranean." This choice might reflect a food culture that's less national and more broadly regional. Or maybe it's something else. "These days you never know," one shopkeeper said recently, briefly spooked by the unexpected presence of a photographer—and by "these days" she meant since 9/11, after which many Middle Eastern communities began facing heightened scrutiny, including this one in a relatively conservative corner of New York City.
With or without flags, this thriving ethnic enclave is hard to miss, especially along Fifth Avenue, where Irish pubs sit next to boutiques showcasing stylish head coverings and 'hounds flock to restaurants like Yemen Café (7130 Fifth Avenue). It prepares lamb in more than a dozen variations, including an irresistible slow-roasted dish called haneeth. They do know their meats around here—like rotisserie chicken sauced with garlicky toum and sujok sausages of beef and lamb at the excellent Lebanese grill Karam (8519 Fourth Avenue). Seafood's a smart choice, too: Take your pick from the day's catch at Bahary Fish Market (484 Bay Ridge Avenue), and get it fried or grilled Egyptian style with a generous dusting of spices. Need dinner to go? The Family Store (6905 Third Avenue) is a longtime destination for home cooking from the Middle East and beyond; its salads, lasagna, and crab cakes are worth a try. There's also a dependable Turkish option in Hazar (7224 Fifth Avenue) , which specializes in charcoal-grilled meats, meze, and pide breads.
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Chowhounds who prefer to cook can eat well in this corner of Bay Ridge, where good groceries abound. The butcher at Alsalam market and deli (7206 Fifth Avenue) is reputed to sell the best meats in the neighborhood (peckish locals who'd rather be cooked for can snack on kebabs, spiced-lamb flatbreads, and other Beirut-style fast food here). And devotees of Tanoreen (7523 Third Avenue) and its refined Palestinian cooking—lemony cauliflower salad and "napoleons" of fried eggplant layered with baba ghanoush, among other greatest hits—can try making them at home now that Chef Rawia Bishara has just come out with a cookbook, Olives, Lemons & Za'atar. When it's time for dessert, you're waist-deep in choices. Try Sweet Arayssi (7216 Fifth Avenue) for nut- or date-filled ma'amoul shortbread cookies; Nablus Sweets (6812 Fifth Avenue) for konafa, a cheese-and-semolina pastry sweetened with rose-water syrup; or Cedars Pastry (7204 Fifth Avenue) for baklava in various flavors as well as ice cream thickened by mastic to a pleasing, taffyish chew.
While current Chowhound intel tends to focus on Middle Eastern food, that doesn't mean there's no other news around the neighborhood. Across Third Avenue from O'Sullivan's pub (8902 Third Avenue), which has had 80 years to perfect its 'hound-endorsed hamburger, an Irish tea room called Celtic Rose (8905 Third Avenue) is awaiting permits and aiming to open by June. There's another noteworthy burger at Brooklyn Beet Company (7205 Third Avenue), a farm-to-table kitchen and bar that swaddles a well-seasoned beef patty in fried lángos flatbread, just the way it's done at sister restaurants Korzo and Korzo Haus. Pastrami, corned beef, and the namesake cut at David's Brisket House (7721 Fifth Avenue) are among New York's best, served at its year-and-a-half-old Fifth Avenue outpost as well as its original Bedford-Stuyvesant location. For hearty German cooking and fresh beer, Schnitzel Haus (7319 Fifth Avenue) has built a loyal following of Ridgites since 2007. This area's also welcomed more Chinese-Americans in recent years, though so far that hasn't produced a wealth of great restaurants. One exception is Grand Sichuan House (8701 Fifth Avenue), which delivers robust, real-deal spicing to a part of town where it's scarce.
If there's scant buzz about some of the older ethnic businesses, it may be because they've been around so long that they're taken for granted—at least until they turn out the lights, as half-century-old Leske's Bakery (7612 Fifth Avenue) did in 2011, leaving countless regulars bereft. That story ended happily as new owners rescued the place a year later and Leske's picked up where it had left off, making Swedish limpa bread, ring-shaped kransekakes, and flaky Danish kringles alongside Irish soda bread, black-and-white cookies, and New York cheesecake, among other treats from all over. By contrast, Nordic Delicacies (6909 Third Avenue) has stuck to its original Scandinavian home turf, stocking imported foodstuffs—cheese, fish, preserves, even reindeer meatballs—as well as house-made dishes like dumplings, herring salad, and delicate cod cakes.
The local Italian places also get few shout-outs from the 'hounds, though some favorites elicit quiet nods—like Gino's (7414 Fifth Avenue), a popular family gathering place that turns 50 this year, and two pizzerias, Peppino's (7708 Third Avenue) and Nino's (9110 Third Avenue—check out the grandma pie). Meanwhile, a new generation is updating Italian tradition at places like A.L.C. Italian Grocery (8613 Third Avenue). Louis Coluccio Jr. opened the shop in 2012, and if his name rings a bell, that's because his grandfather founded D. Coluccio & Sons, which is still taking care of business in Bensonhurst, importing and selling top-shelf Italian goods. A.L.C. carries groceries (both imported and made in Brooklyn), baked goods, cheeses, cured meats, and prepared foods including sandwiches, lasagna, porchetta, and salads. “There’s a tradition of family owned and operated places, stores, restaurants in this neighborhood,” the young proprietor told the New York Times. “If anything, the Italian identity is getting stronger.”
Speaking of going from strength to strength, mom-and-pop bakery Robicelli's (9009 Fifth Avenue) is on a roll. Allison and Matt Robicelli recently published Robicelli's: A Love Story, with Cupcakes, an unconventional cookbook that's really a funny, heartfelt memoir with recipes. And after several years of working seasonal markets and the wholesale trade, they're selling their signature desserts—distinguished by French technique, real buttercream, and novel but just-right flavor combinations like chicken and waffles—at a bakery-café they opened late last year in the neighborhood where they both grew up.
But this isn't the Bay Ridge of their childhood. Relatively low rents have attracted young newcomers in culinary and media jobs, and the emerging market for a high-end cupcake bakery—even one with strong working-class cred and deep community commitment—is one reflection of that change, as the Robicellis are well aware. They hope to appeal to their new fans—"people who understand the importance of shopping local and staying local," as Allison describes them—while honoring the contributions of earlier newcomers by incorporating ingredients like yogurt, Asiago, and date molasses. A global variety of flavors, with respect for tradition baked into the mix—that's very Bay Ridge.
PHOTO CREDITS--Top: Bahary Fish Market's grilled branzino by JH Barbee; A.L.C. Italian Grocery storefront by Mark Hokoda; Nordic Delicacies' cod cakes and herring salad by Mark Hokoda; eggplant “napoleon” from Tanoreen. Bottom: Brooklyn Beet Company's Korzo burger, beer at Schnitzel Haus, and Killarney's Pub storefront by JH Barbee; Matt and Allison Robicelli from Robicelli's. Photo collages by Chris Rochelle. Chow Hood logo by Perry Lucina.