We’ve come quite a distance from the virally virginal days of early March when we were still adjusting to certain grim realities I need not elaborate upon. Since then, the public’s psychological pendulum has swung, in some quarters at least, from caution and prudence to the reckless impulsiveness of ill-informed hoople-heads (e.g., the heavily armed, wannabe militia men who cowed the Michigan State Legislature last month).
But most people aren’t reacting to the crisis in a manner so florid. Most, like the restaurant and bar owners of Bushwick, Brooklyn, are just trying to descry any hint whatsoever of luminescence at the other end of this depthless mine shaft called the COVID 19 pandemic.
The first installment of my column, published in early April, documented the pluck and perseverance of two Bushwick business owners, Marie Estrada of Moto Spirits Distillery and Shinobu Kato of the Kato Sake Works. They are, you’ll be glad to hear, still in business, fighting the good fight against sobriety.
Today, we add two more faded daguerreotypes to our Wild West gallery of small scale entrepreneurship under siege: Steve Sciacca of Pizzette, in East Williamsburg, and Paulina Loyo-Grigoris and JR Savage of Gordo’s Cantina, just west of the Bushwick/Ridegwood border.
While they wave flags for highly distinct food cultures, both Gordo’s Cantina and Pizzette have at least one thing in common: both, while relatively new (Pizzette opened last summer, Gordo’s earlier this year), are helmed by industry veterans; Loyo-Grigoris and Savage owned and ran two restaurants prior to Gordo’s, and Sciacca is juggling Pizzette, French “bistro” Mominette and Bushwick Bakery.
They diverged, at least initally, in their respective responses to Governor Cuomo’s restrictive edicts in early March: Gordo’s Cantina immediately pivoted to take-out/delivery mode, while Sciacca’s Pizzette is only just reopening for business.
Everything Sciacca would serve to sit down guests pre-pandemic he’s now making available to a largely homebound public. Pizza, of course, occupies the catbird seat, but notice as well the housemade pastas, the housemade burrata and mozzarella, and the gnocchi, made – you guessed it – in casa. There is very little, in fact, that Sciacca and his crew won’t whip up themselves rather than resort to the store bought products he abhors. (As was explained in a previous profile, his obsessively DIY impulses emanate directly from his Sicilian grandmother, from whose flour-dusted apron strings he dangled while growing up on Long Island.)
Pizzette is, according to Sciacca, the only East Williamsburg pizzeria with a full bar, so feel free to accompany a bite of perfectly blistered pizza crust with a boozy, bracingly bitter glug of negroni or, summer approaching, the fresh lime pucker of a cold margarita.
Sciacca has also reopened Mominette, a Bushwick favorite of both brunch and oyster-philes. Unfortunately, the menu doesn’t currently feature said bivalve, once a cornerstone of the popular spot’s menu. For them, you’ll have to go begging back to Pizzette, where they’re sold for $16 (half dozen) or $30 (dozen). Slap down $50 and a dozen comes paired with a bottle of cold, dry Muscadet, seafood’s vinous soul mate.
No alcohol at Gordo’s Cantina – not yet, anyway. When I spoke to owner Savage in March he mentioned a liquor license stuck somewhere in the winding intestines of the city’s bureaucracy. Given the byzantine nature of the process, don’t expect a margarita next week.
Expect, however, some of the best (fuck that, it’s the best) Mexican food in Bushwick. The menu, authored by CDMX-born chef Reyna Morales, is a mix of traditional Central Mexican dishes (co-owner Paulina Loyo-Grigoris is from Leon, Guanajuato) and a few stateside favorites.
For something different, try the Gobernador, a mix of perfectly poached tiger shrimp, cheese and pico de gallo in a fresh yellow corn tortilla. Rajas (nopal cactus cut into strips), while familiar to some, may not be in everybody’s Mexican food tool box; at Gordo’s Cantina they come draped like Playboy models over a luxurious, bubbling open-faced quesadilla.
Even the ostensibly familiar on Gordo’s menu, on closer examination, diverges from gringo expectations. The selection of burritos, altered here as burritAs, come in pairs and are much smaller and simpler than the swollen scud missiles common in most U.S. taquerias.
A similar paradigm prevails at Pizzette, where Sciacca, while overall pitching fairly straight, enjoys putting a little english on a ball of dough if it suits him. One particular selection is aimed squarely at the groin of that most churlish of food fanatic, the pizza purist, featuring shredded hunks of tender duck meat, caramelized onions, a homey, rich marinara, and funky DOP gorgonzola cheese.
But putting food aside for a second: an important element of this column’s “hospitality under siege” narrative is the reliability, or lack thereof, of the federal government’s small business assistance initiative, the Pay Check Protection Program (PPPL). Having talked with several area business owners, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that the program has either failed small business utterly or provided just enough oxygen to its shrunken lungs to allow for one last gasp before death. In case you haven’t noticed, more and more bars and restaurants have begun to reopen around the neighborhood; on its face, this reanimation cheers the heart, but only if you’re unaware of the grim necessity prompting it. Steven Sciacca, for instance, finally resuscitated Mominette and Pizzette after he released he couldn’t rely on help from the PPPL.
There is one bit of green clover amid the crab grass for Sciacca: his third business, Bushwick Bakery, has, despite a downtick in wholesale orders, never seen more business from locals. The erstwhile baker (prior to his current ventures Sciacca owned and ran a bakery in Greenpoint) made sure the store never closed, manning it himself for 40 straight days.
Gordo’s has had some good fortune, as well. They recently managed to extract a few drops of honey from the seemingly lifeless bee hive of the government, in the form of that PPPL assistance I mentioned previously. It’s a lifeline, if a slender one, allowing them to rehire a substantial portion of staff – just in time for a particularly slammed Cinco de Mayo.
As usual, you can order directly on Gordo’s website for pick-up (every day), or delivery from one of several apps. (Owners often prefer that you opt for the former, if possible, so they can keep the whopping 30% taken off the top of already thin profit margins by Grubhub and the like.)
Pizzette offers both in-house delivery and pick-up options through their website, 2 – 10 pm seven days a week. Happy hour, 3-7pm, includes $6 glasses of wine accompanied by one free oyster, $4 draft beers and $8 cocktails.
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