99 ESSENTIAL RESTAURANTS®
Photo by Dominic Perri
2017 Emmons Avenue
Monday through Thursday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight
When Randazzo's Clam Bar opened in 1932, it was a waterfront fishmonger and bar. In the decades following, it became a Sheepshead Bay icon, thanks in part to its expansion into a full-fledged restaurant serving matriarch Helen Randazzo's Italian-American recipes. It's still a family operation — fourth-generation owner Paul Randazzo weathered Hurricane Sandy from inside the restaurant, escaping via raft when things got too dicey. Bivalves draw the crowds, but it's the kitchen's famed sauce, made with tomatoes stewed for hours, that keeps folks coming back for more. Ladled over steamed, fried, or raw seafood, the sauce's chile heat creeps to a low rumble. Pastas arrive in heaping portions, stained red and hiding a bevy of shrimp or calamari. A special of “marinated, burned chicken” delivers on its promise, though it's more of a welcome char. Saddle up to the bar in search of chowder, and a waiter's likely to demand, “Red or white?” Either's a safe bet, though the Manhattan red hits with a tangy tomato zest like that of the sauce. Savor the namesake mollusk slurped raw, fried, or baked in the shell, chopped and tossed with breadcrumbs and herbs. These days the restaurant's neon lobster sign cycles through a rainbow of colors, lighting up Emmons Avenue like an undersea rave. Take a seat inside. Even if you're not on anything, ecstasy abounds.
Photo by Dominic Perri
1 Water Street
Monday to Friday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 11 p.m.
DUMBO may now be home to luxury lofts and trendy restaurants, to a charming waterfront park and a forthcoming mall in an old tobacco factory, but when The River Café opened in 1977, it couldn't exactly rely on a steady neighborhood clientele to fill its tables. Back then the area was an abandoned warehouse district, an unlikely location for a restaurant with lofty ambitions. It took founder Michael “Buzzy” O'Keeffe twelve years to secure the permits to build here, but he persisted, and once he opened, he soon found a global audience for his waterfront space. Over the years Larry Forgione, Charlie Palmer, and David Burke all stood behind the burners; the restaurant claims Forgione invented the phrase "free range chicken" while working here. Fast-forward nearly four decades and you can see the influence the River Café has had over its surroundings: The waterfront is now a charming place to stroll, and trendy restaurants abound. As testament to the kind of neighborhood this has become, the River Café now fits in so seamlessly, you might actually miss the entrance to the long driveway that leads to the place. With the panoramic view of Manhattan glittering across the river, you hardly need food to make this a worthy destination. But the food in itself is worth a stop. Fourteen years into his tenure, chef Brad Steelman continues to turn out pristine and subtly inventive continental fare befitting of its price tag. (You'll either eat a $120 three-course meal comprising your choice of appetizer, entrée, and dessert, or you'll drop $150 for the six-course chef's tasting and surrender to the whim of the kitchen.) This is one of the few dining rooms in Manhattan where jackets are still required for men, and where you're not really able to dine at the bar, so be aware, when you book your reservation, that you're going all in. For us that means ordering a bottle of Champagne (the better to enjoy the piano player) and making a night of it. This is an experience every New Yorker should have at least once.
Photo by Nicole Franzen
261 Moore Street
Monday to Friday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. to midnight, Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. to midnight. Bakery open daily 7 to 11 a.m.
Pioneering Bushwick pizzeria Roberta's is every bit as electric as it was in 2008, when owners Chris Parachini, Brandon Hoy, and chef Carlo Mirarchi opened this hippie-ster culinary compound with no gas, no heat, and no hot water. These days the place frequently commands two-plus hours of patient toe-tapping from skinny-jean-wearing yeast freaks. Delivery and takeout operations now exist to smooth the passage of time, but you should take your ass outside for a beer in Roberta's backyard, a magical place where gardens grow, craned-in shipping containers hide flourishing internet radio stations, and rooftop beehives foster buzzy NIMBYs who get aggressive with the gentrifying locals. Once seated, pizza puns abound, like the “Millennium Falco,” pizzaiolo Anthony Falco's namesake pie topped with tomato, Parmesan, pork sausage, onions, basil, and chile. Roberta's is about so much more than its excellent Neapolitan-on-acid experiments, though. Mirarchi fills the rest of his casual menu with expressive New American plates that celebrate seasonal produce in innovative ways. Such experimentation also fuels outgrowth Blanca, a progressive twelve-seat tasting counter where the chef and his team obsessively execute twenty-plus-course menus of quizzical plates like agnolotti with plankton and pine-nut sauce. Here, as at Roberta's, the vibe couldn't be more relaxed, with crackly vinyl tunes and pleated leather seating. The food at both places, though, demands reverential attention.
Photo by Allison Robicelli/Courtesy Robicelli's
9009 Fifth Avenue
Tuesday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday and Saturday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Monday.
In 2008 Allison and Matt Robicelli began selling what they call their “working-class pastries” at the DeKalb Market and other outlets throughout NYC. They garnered a passionate following, and soon it came time for them to open a storefront of their own. And so the South Brooklyn natives picked an address in their lifelong neighborhood, Bay Ridge. Thanks to their sophisticated twists on ubiquitous desserts, Robicelli's draws a regular audience not just from its own neighborhood, but of the many New Yorkers willing to brave the R train, plus pastry hounds from New Jersey and Connecticut, too. They come in droves for whimsical desserts like Nutelasagna, a combination of pasta, cannoli cream, Nutella, roasted hazelnuts, and chopped chocolate with toasted Italian meringue on top. The couple's following may range far and wide, but the Robicellis’ real ambition is to foster community and create something similar to gathering places they loved while they were growing up. At Robicelli's, it's not uncommon to see young parents wiping frosting off their kids' faces, bus drivers eating banana pudding pie, and old ladies snacking on scones. Rich pastries aren't exclusionary, after all.
Photo by Bradley Hawks
6408 Fort Hamilton Parkway
Tuesday to Thursday 7 a.m. to 8 p.m, Friday 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
“Just like Mama used to make” is one of those idioms people abuse, but at this Dyker Heights seafood-centric Italian restaurant, Mom practically wrote the recipe book. One week after opening Rocco's Italian Cafeteria, owner Rocco Bruno faced a nightmare obstacle when his chef unexpectedly quit. His mother stepped in and schooled the kitchen crew, and the rest is history — nearly twenty years of it. Crunchy, greaseless, and sliced into thick rings, the squid earns its place on the neon sign that runs along the top of the restaurant's façade. Dip the pieces into herb-rich marinara or a similar version amped up with chile peppers. A long steam table of antipasti stretches across the length of the dining room. Shuffle down the line and make your decision fast. When things get busy, ordering with a sense of purpose might just get you an extra scoop of marinated octopus salad. Choosing from the rest of the Southern Italian menu yields a treasure trove of red-sauce classics with sides to match, in particular the flawless vegetable sautés. Make a beeline for the restaurant on Fridays, when the cooks transform whole squid into edible taxidermy, stuffing them with seasoned breadcrumbs.
Photo by Dominic Perri
243 DeKalb Avenue
Sunday to Thursday 5 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to midnight, Saturday and Sunday brunch noon to 4:30 p.m.
Some people didn’t know what to make of it when Andrew Tarlow (see Diner elsewhere in this list, or any of several of his other ventures — Marlow & Sons, Reynard — that could easily merit inclusion) revamped his Bonita space in Fort Greene in late December 2009, switched from family-friendly Mexican to grown-up Italian, and reopened as Roman’s. Whaddaya mean, the menu changes every damn day? Whaddaya mean, the pasta plates are teensy? Whaddaya mean, I can’t make a reservation? But chef Dave Gould stuck to his guns, banking on the long-term appeal of carefully sourced, seasonally available ingredients and simply but painstakingly prepared dishes. All the little things, in other words, done right. Who’s complaining now? Only the people too impatient to wait for a seat. The narrow, white-painted space is spare but intimate, with about as many tables as you have toes and a roughly equivalent number of stools at the marble-topped bar. Service is confident and low-key. A Valentine’s Day visit brought an even smaller menu than usual — and a memorable meal highlighted by a pesce-perfect spaghetti alle vongole and duck breast done to a turn with salsa verde and potatoes fried in duck fat on the side. Maybe it was the amorous nature of the occasion, but so smitten were we with the roasted oyster presented as a starter that we requested (and received) an encore for dessert. Don’t go looking for a long list of specialty cocktails; Roman’s flies by the seat of its drinking pants, too. As you might expect, the wine list zeroes in on Italy. As you might not, Lee Campbell — she’s wine director for all of the Tarlow group’s restaurants — has been spotlighting the wines of Slovenia and Croatia of late. (But don’t hold us to that — she's previously focused on single producers and regions like the Italian Riviera.)
Photo by Dominic Perri
190 Dean Street
Monday to Friday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to midnight, Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to midnight
Boerum Hill is historic in every way other than its name — a coinage that dates only as far back as the 1960s, before which the neighborhood was the antithesis of trendy and known as North Gowanus. Business partners (and cousins) Julian Brizzi and Henry Rich brought their first restaurant into the world in much the same fashion that Boerum Hill brownstoners bootstrapped the area up from blight: with persistence and a stubborn disregard for the obstacles one faces when undertaking a gut rehab. When Rucola opened in the spring of 2011 with chef Joe Pasqualetto running the kitchen, a hungry neighborhood rejoiced. “The night we opened, we had 150 people,” says Pasqualetto. “Within two weeks we were doing breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They were lined up outside. It was a shotgun start.” The name is Italian for arugula, and it’s an apt one. Rucola’s concise, constantly changing menu is vegetable forward, with a focus on straightforward preparations that showcase the cuisine of Northern Italy. Salads are a mainstay (though we have a hard time resisting the crudo of the day). During the cold months, a short rib of beef with spaetzle, savoy cabbage, and roasted turnips warms the belly just as the rustically intimate, convivially populated, 50-seat space soothes the soul — abetted, of course, by a thoughtfully curated list of wines (many bottles priced under $40), grappas, and amari. And even in a brunch-saturated city, Rucola’s rendition is revered, especially by the restaurant’s hardcore regulars.
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