“Dentist-vegan activist-entrepreneur,” possibly Bushwick’s most idiosyncratic multi-hyphenate, can be attributed to Andrew Della Pietra, owner of a thriving dental practice on the corner of Suydam and Knickerbocker. This February, Della Pietra earned the fictitious superlative when he opened Grilled!, a tiny eatery selling low-cost vegan food, glued like a silver crown to Bushwick Dental Group’s park-facing northern flank.
One could also readily slot “missionary” and “brand ambassador” into Della Pietra’s occupational moniker, because Grilled! isn’t so much an eatery as a living, breathing manifesto, a clarion call to vegan-uninitiated to consider the meat industry’s impact on animal welfare and the environment.
Bushwick, of course, is not without vegan or vegan-friendly options. Ethiopian restaurant and venue Bunna Cafe is a standout, as are Sol Sips and Seitan Rising. But where Grilled! differs from those and other animal-less establishments is pricing: Della Pietra does all he can to keep costs way, way down. A Beyond Burger, for example, currently sells for $4.50, with the kids version going for $2.50. A dietary Prometheus with a tooth scraper, Della Pietra brings tofurky to the masses rather than fire.
The visionary behind Grilled! was born and raised in Sheepshead Bay and has been a practicing dentist since the early ’90s. His partner is Guillermo “Memo” Jaramillo, a Colombian transplant.
Chef Jaramillo is the main author of Grilled!’s compact menu, which contains a few nods to his own heritage and that of other points on the Latin American map.
First and foremost, there’s the arepa burger, the basic idea borrowed from a street vendor who sold a carnivorous version back in Bogotá. His version retains its primary components—a patty, slice of bologna and melted cheese between two arepas—while subbing out the animal-derived items for plant-based substitutes.
Both Della Pietra and Jaramillo started cutting animal products out of their diets roughly 10 years ago. In 2009, Della Pietra attended the National Animal Rights Conference in Washington, D.C. He left the conference a pescatarian, disturbing images of debeaking and anesthesia-less porcine castration swimming in his head. Not long after, he dropped fish, eggs and dairy products from his diet as well.
“It’s not only the mercury and toxins, but the commercial fisheries pillaging the oceans,” asserted Della Pietra in front of his nascent eatery one afternoon. “And then there’s the eggs and dairy: I hadn’t realized that cows have to be pregnant to produce milk. They carry the babies and then post-birth they’re ripped away from their mothers. The males are put in tiny crates to make veal.”
Chef Jaramillo, meanwhile, had to wait until he left Colombia to fully commit to a vegan diet, as he explained during a brief work break.
“When I was still in Colombia, I had a friend in New York and she started to talk to me about my love of dogs, and ‘How can you eat animals and love dogs?’” said the Bogotá native. “So I became vegetarian at first. But it’s hard to go fully vegan in Colombia. When I moved here five years ago, I saw all the options and said to myself, ‘Now is the time—right now.’”
For Jaramillo, some of those options include select items at Venezuelan bar Santa Salsa, Queen of Falafel and Toad Style just over the border in Bed-Stuy.
“Oh, and Burger King,” laughed Jaramillo. “Because they have a good Impossible Burger—White Castle, too.”
A meatless menu doesn’t mean Jaramillo hasn’t been able to find ways to pay tribute to the various, heavily animal-based cuisines of Latin America. Aside from the aforementioned gut-busting arepa burger, there’s the Colombian hot dog, whose ethnic identity is signified, per Jaramillo, by the addition of pineapple, raw diced onions, crumbled potato chips and a special “pink sauce” (“It’s ketchup and vegan mayo-based, but the rest I can’t tell you”).
Cuba is represented, naturally enough, by a Cubano, which features one of the few meat substitutes Grilled! makes in-house rather than sourcing from companies like Beyond Meat and Gardein.
“My wife is a Cuban from Miami,” explained Jaramillo. “Her father gave me the recipe for the pork marinade, so I used it on seitan. And we use a different bread because the Cuban bread contains lard.”
Finally, there’s choripan, an Argentinian street food classic that’s a particular favorite of mine. It consists of a grilled sausage in a bun and is dressed with the pesto-like condiment chimichurri, ubiquitous in the Southern Cone.
Della Pietra had been mulling over the idea of a vegan eatery for some time when he scooped up Jaramillo, who had lost his job at Champs Diner last year due to the pandemic.
“One day, I was delivering these vegan empanadas I make, and a friend said, ‘There’s this dentist who owns this store. He’s vegan and he wants to open a vegan burger joint,’” said Jaramillo.
He smiled, adding, “I didn’t pay too much attention. But in August we met for the first time and we started talking. [His idea] was giving affordable vegan food to the community.”
And that is exactly what Grilled! has done; the bargain prices manage to undercut even McDonald’s, a fact which no doubt pleases Della Pietra, whose zeal for veganismo might rival the religious piety of a Templar Knight.
Della Pietra is also an unabashed promoter, through the bullhorn that is Grilled!, of the various companies hawking the meat alternatives that have begun to creep into the mainstream over the last several years; He doesn’t just want a family to come and sit for lunch at one of the plastic tables sitting on the curb opposite Grilled!’s order window. He also wants to inspire them to grab a 12-pack of Beyond Burger patties next time they go to the supermarket.
Sharp-eyed readers who often traipse past Bushwick Dental Group on their way to Maria Hernandez Park know that Grilled! isn’t Della Pietra’s first foray into using business to amplify his convictions: late last year his Knickerbocker-facing windows featured a cartoon of two giant turkeys, one smiling. When the smiling turkey’s companion inquires as to why, the grinning tom answers, “Because I just found out my dentist is vegan!”
You can visit Grilled! at 264 Suydam St. from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m., Thursday through Monday. They do direct delivery, too.
Top image: Jackson Schroeder
Body images: Grilled!’s Instagram
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