Taking a bite out of the Big Apple
It’s an improbable fact that Homer Simpson is the inspiration behind a vegan shop in New York, but it is a fact nonetheless. Watching an episode of The Simpsons one night, Christopher Hollowell badly craved a doughnut, but he couldn’t find a vegan version anywhere in New York. He rang his best friend and fellow vegan Dan Dunbar and they hatched a plan to open the city’s first dairy-free doughnut shop. The resulting joint, in the bohemian district of Williamsburg, is decked out in true down-home style, with walls covered in vintage baking posters, recipes, whisks, rolling pins and baking tins, and a ’20s jazz soundtrack filling the room. Each of Dun-Well’s organic doughnuts are made by hand and there are more than 200 flavours in rotation, from traditional varieties such as glazed, chocolate and jam-filled to inventive concoctions such as root beer, tangerine basil and black liquorice.
They are almost unrecognisable from the earliest incarnations of the doughnut. While they originated in Europe and the Middle East, they made their way to New York (then known as New Amsterdam) as Dutch olykoeks (oil cakes). By the mid 19th century, doughnuts had evolved into the ring we know today, and the craze took off. Indeed, at Ellis Island, immigrants had their first taste of the Big Apple with coffee and doughnuts. New York was home to the first automated doughnut machine in 1921 and they were soon being churned out to the masses, remaining affordable even during the Great Depression. Today, the US produces about 10 billion doughnuts every year, with new takes constantly being devised – witness this year’s Cronut, a croissant/doughnut hybrid that originated in New York. As Homer Simpson once retorted: ‘Doughnuts. Is there anything they can’t do?’
Among warehouses and factories splashed with shouty street art, the building housing Roberta’s Pizza is like a shy child cowed by its brasher siblings. The slightly dishevelled, grey-brick former garage is an inconspicuous sight on the streets of Bushwick. And that’s just how its devotees like it. Inside, local 20-somethings with dyed hair, tattoos and skinny jeans huddle with friends, casting curious glances at the out-of-towners who’ve been showing up in increasing numbers since Roberta’s was lauded in The New York Times. All are prepared to wait hours for the chance to dine under the twinkly lights at its rustic wooden tables.
Out back, a sustainable garden and greenhouse produce some of the restaurant’s herbs and vegetables, while in the kitchen, the smoky, wood-fired brick oven transforms simple ingredients into something sublime. This respect for quality ingredients – long forgotten by many a Times Square pizza parlour – is in keeping with the city’s first pizzas, introduced by Italian immigrants in the 1900s. Early pioneering pizzerias – such as America’s first, Lombardi’s in Little Italy – used the best ingredients, including homemade fresh mozzarella. And while Chicago has its ‘deep-dish’ pizza and Californian pizza is light and doughy, New York’s regional style soon developed with a thin crust that allows for faster cooking time – essential in a city where everyone’s always in a hurry.
Roberta’s may be respectful of New York’s pizza heritage but it is, after all, a Bushwick joint, so alongside the classic margherita are creations such as The Bee Sting – tomato, mozzarella, sopressata (Italian dry salami), chilli and honey – and Carlos Danger – parmigiano, squash, fresnos (chilli peppers), onion and chilli oil. Folding it into your face is entirely optional.