“Isn’t this little soda adorable,” a customer says to her companion, fishing a three-inch ruby-colored vial of San Pellegrino Red Bitter Soda, a non-alcoholic apéritif, out of the brown takeaway bag that carried her lunch. It was purchased that afternoon at the newly opened cafe Rolo’s, tucked away on an unassuming corner of Onderdonk Avenue.
Opening with quiet fanfare on a Wednesday afternoon, this unassuming corner is, in fact, as packed as you can imagine it being, all socially distanced and awaiting sandwiches. Amid a pandemic, a marketing shop can still generate hype, even in Queens. Deliverables that very morning had included a solid graf in the New York Times and a set of gorgeous sun-lit photographs in Eater where it was observed, somewhat sleepily, that “the changing needs of the pandemic era lines up neatly with Rolo’s rotating weekly menu.” But the pandemic hadn’t changed the need for sandwiches and this is where Rolo’s shines.
Ben Howell, one of the four alums of Gramercy Tavern who run Rolo’s, told Bushwick Daily that his favorite is the meatball parm, which exemplifies the cafe’s game of low-high cultural significance and, at $11, is at the higher end of the sandwich menu.
“There’s a simmering sauce that we grill over a wood-burning grill and it’s made from animals we butcher,” Howell says reverently of the meatballs and their respective sauce. “There’s a lot of details in it, but for the guest, it’s just really, really…” he pauses, unsure of what word could do such a parm justice. He settles on delicious.
Another of the Gramercy Tavern alums had told the Times that “we all got fine dining out of our systems and wanted to do something modest and simple.” SoHo has become boring and they must now come here, into the creamy world of the masses, what the celebrity chef of that era, David Chang, has christened the ugly delicious. (“All the flavor. None of the BS.”)
It comes as no surprise, then, that the best of these at Rolo’s stick close to the bodega fare that’s ostensibly across the street but less well marketed. It’s the egg & cheese, significantly cheaper at $6 and that currently comes on top of the focaccia bread that Rolo’s bakes on premises and which is among the first things that its accompanying minimart sells out. (Howell says the bread is something the ex-Gramercy chefs have been working on for “a really long time.”) But I’m more moved by the globs of American cheese that the sandwich provides in warm, chewy helpings, not quite melted, and swimming in a spicy hot sauce. Equally miraculous is the spicy peanut sandwich, so named for its savory sauce, which floods the squares of tofu and cabbage slaw, held by a ciabatta bun that is also baked on premises. The stack of flavors is rich and yet somehow elegant and the sandwich is never in danger of falling apart in my hands.
Lo and behold, the egg & cheese sandwich has a story rich in detail, or at least its sauce does. According to Howell, another erstwhile Gramercy chef, Rafiq Salim, had “reverse engineered” it from “a bathtub hot sauce” popular in Trinidad.
“We have tried to import it but it got held up in customs, so we made our own,” Howell says, evidencing the reality-TV style grit and resourcefulness demanded of today’s culinary world.
More interesting is the move to Ridgewood, a neighborhood whose sleepy, semi-suburban aesthetic drew Howell in.
“It has this character that reminds me of where my parents grew up in South Brooklyn and Bay Ridge,” he says, grouping Ridgewood among the elect “old school neighborhoods” of New York City.
Bushwick and Williamsburg fail to make the cut anymore, he says. They have simply changed too much.
Rolo’s makes an interesting effort to blend in: its marketing team describes the Manhattan import as a “neighborhood restaurant” and its unassuming name suggests a fictional world where Rolo’s had always been on the corner of Onderdonk Avenue, across the street from a genuine bodega with the name “Family Deli & Grill” printed on the awning. In fact, while none of the four former Gramercy Tavern employees are named Rolo, the name is curiously similar to that of the genuine neighborhood restaurant Rudy’s less than a block away, a regional curiosity whose presence in the area since 1934 regularly garners notice in the Times.
The real and the not-real, the artifice and the actual. Howell himself glides into gleeful abstractions describing Rolo’s style, which was the work of Kermit Westergaard, an ambitious local developer who named the restaurant after his dog.
“We really wanted it to feel classic but not retro,” says Howell, later clarifying this to mean “a contemporary aesthetic that isn’t trendy.”
Howell makes the buzzwords sound sincere and almost poetic, as if he could politely pull out rich stories behind each phrase if only I asked. When you enter Rolo’s, there’s a miniature grocery store at the front, advertised on the opening day by a symmetrical pile of tomato cans. There is also a dining room that could seat 100 people one day, but the number is curiously unimpressive to Howell, who says “compared to something like The Smith, it’s half the size,” in reference to a Manhattan chain that’s the subject of much ridicule among the “food-obsessed.”
More stories abound in the miniature grocery store that takes up half of Rolo’s space, which had once been a now-forgotten candy store of which no record can be found. Howell says that they stocked their store with “all stuff we have in our pantries,” cult items that can’t be found in the ordinary grocery stores where the non-food-obsessed shopped. At long last there is now a place in Ridgewood to buy San Pellegrino Red Bitter Sodas and Lao Gan Ma Chili Crisps.
Howell points to one of these niche items, the colorful bottles of kewpie mayo and says that two customers have already applauded him for having them in stock. Fortunately this is a story already told somewhere else, in Thrillist, in Food & Wine, and in blogs beyond. The great David Chang has sung its praises and Uniqlo sells it on a shirt.
And now it’s on the shelf in Ridgewood.
Interested customers can place their orders online.
Top photo credit: Andrew Karpan
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