Last Saturday, as the world’s top cyclists set out to tackle L’Alpe d’Huez – one of the toughest stages of the famous Tour de France race – I set out on my own tour that required a very different set of wheels.
My friends AnnMarie and Jen grew up in the southern part of Brooklyn (Mill Basin and Bay Ridge, to be exact) and decided, as a throwback to their high school days, to take a few of us on a summer food tour of their part of the borough – which doesn’t get nearly the amount of foodie-love bestowed on neighborhoods like Williamsburg or Park Slope.
What’s interesting about this part of Brooklyn is that it’s a city and suburb all in one. Even though it’s totally accessible by the expansive MTA subway system – there’s a real “car culture,” similar to where I grew up on Long Island. So, although the four of us Manhattanites came to Brooklyn by subway, we were going to travel through the borough like locals – and that meant in AnnMarie’s Lexus. At about 11:30am on Saturday, she picked us up at the Kings Highway Q stop, ready to spend the day sharing her New York.
I’ve lived in the city on and off for six years and grew up just outside, in the suburbs. While I love the idea of exploring New York with new eyes, it’s still rare to actually feel like a tourist. Like most New Yorkers, I don’t own, but rent, my apartment and have therefore moved around quite a bit from Clinton Hill to Chelsea to Midtown East – eight neighborhoods across Manhattan and Brooklyn to be precise! (And that number is probably on the lower side compared to many New Yorkers.) So while the city may be huge, I’ve seen a lot of it.
But there I was, at our first stop on the food tour in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, less than 20 miles from my apartment in downtown Manhattan, feeling like a visitor in my own hometown – in the best possible way.
If you’re visiting New York for more than a few days, or a New Yorker looking to staycation, here are a few of the top spots for an authentic foodie experience in Brooklyn (and a bit of Queens!):
Stop 1, 12:07pm: Roll-N-Roaster
2901 Emmons Ave, Sheepshead Bay
Roll and Rooster, Roll-N-Roster, Rolling Roaster… while the first spot on our tour had a bit of an identity crisis when we tried to check in on instagram, once we walked through the doors of Roll-N-Roaster (correct spelling!), there was no confusing it for any other fast food joint. When I call it “retro,” I don’t mean it’s been carefully designed by some creative agency to pay homage to a past decade, I mean it literally hasn’t been updated since the 70’s – scoring some serious authenticity cred in my opinion. Just look at these roller-skating waitresses in this commercial, which still plays on the restaurant TVs.
I ordered the signature roast beef sandwich, medium done – which came with a light jus and a fresh soft bun – but declined the cheez topping, a decision I immediately regretted when I sampled my friend’s cheez-smeared fries back at our table. An elevated version of cheese whiz, more of the velveeta variety, this special topping seemed to be an appropriate condiment for just about every dish on the menu at Roll-N-Roaster (maybe even the apple pie, if you’re from certain parts of the country apparently).
To complete our experience, a young girl celebrating her birthday got to spin the legendary “birthday wheel” for free food credits. And, after spotting a 59-dollar bottle of Moet champagne on the menu (among the three-dollar lemonades and iced teas), I think I may just come back to celebrate my big day when March roll-n-roasters around!
Stop 2, 1:22pm: Jacob Riis Beach & the Riis Park Beach Bazaar
157 Rockaway Beach Blvd
Ok, technically it isn’t Brooklyn, but after a short drive from Roll-N-Roaster we found ourselves pulling into the enormous parking lot at Jacob Riis Park Beach – because what better way to recover from a fried lunch than by sunning yourself in a bikini.
First thought upon arrival? When people come to Riis Beach, they come for the long haul. Folding tables, safari tents, coolers packed with way more food than I ever have in my Manhattan refrigerator – it could have been an episode of Doomsday Preppers.
And there were plenty of food options to buy, too, thanks to the Riis Park Beach Bazaar (who also run the Brooklyn Night Bazaar) – everything from ice cream by Ample Hills to southeast-asian-inspired tacos by Coney Shack.
Dehydrated after a long morning run, lots of savory roast beef and an afternoon of sun, I was in desperate need to refreshment. Luckily, the good people at By the Beach Cocos cracked me open a fresh coconut to quench my thirst. I brought back a second one for my boyfriend and…for just a second…it felt like we were on some small island in Thailand. Not bad for a $5 coconut water.
Stop 3, 5:46pm: Connolly’s
155 Beach 95th St, Rockaway Beach
As we approached our third destination, steps from Rockaway beach, I had once again worked up an appetite. We thought we smelled some fried beach snacks, which would have no doubt hit the spot, but the moment we walked into Connolly’s Pub, we knew our next meal would be exclusively liquid, unless you counted the maraschino cherries atop our frozen beverages.
Serving slushy-like pina coladas and strawberry lemonades in styrofoam cups, our bartender asked if we wanted her to pour extra shots of liquor on top – something she referred to as a “floater.” Judging by the no-nonsense look on her face, I knew she wasn’t used to people turning her down – so I quickly gave her the floater go-ahead. Sitting outside on the bar’s porch, we each enjoyed two frozen drinks, now pretty buzzed from all the hard liquor masked by sugar, before sensibly agreeing like adults to find some real food. This is 30.
Stop 4, 8:24pm: L&B Spumoni Gardens
2725 86th Street, Bensonhurst
“Hey, let’s get some spumoni!” I learned that in these parts of Brooklyn that phrase can mean two things: the sicilian style pizza that L&B Spumoni Gardens has perfected – with its subtly sweet red sauce that sits on top of the cheese – or it can mean the classic “Italian” dessert of the same name.
Luckily for us, at our fourth and final destination, it meant both.
We ordered a half pie of the Spumoni speciality for the five of us (just the right size) and found ourselves a picnic table out front in the garden, where we sipped $3 Coronas and enjoyed the Saturday night neighborhood buzz – couples on date night sauntering into the “fine” dining room; groups of local teenagers hanging out, just looking for a bit of freedom; families filling up on buckets of ice cream.
When it came time for our own dessert, I must admit that I had no idea what to expect. Despite my Italian heritage, I had never tasted spumoni before; in fact, I didn’t even know what it was (my great-grandma Taffurelli is probably facepalming in Pine Lawn as I write this). Turns out it’s a Neapolitan-style ice cream, often resembling the Italian flag…or more like the German, in this case, with chocolate replacing the classic red cherry flavor. And although this sweet treat has all but disappeared in Italy, immigrants in the US have been embracing it since the late 1800’s – placing it in that curious category, with the likes of shrimp scampi and alfredo sauce, of beloved Italian-American dishes that you’ll never find on a menu in Italy.
I let each bite of the spumoni melt in my mouth, savoring the three distinct flavors, interspersed with surprise bits of hazelnut that delighted me in the same way the day’s events had. Traveling less than 20 miles from my apartment, I managed to discover something new about my heritage and my home. Just the maraschino cherry to top a perfect day.