Ed Levine Knows Honest Food

ed levineI rendezvous with Ed Levine, New York City’s most respected nosh guide, at Floyd Bennet Field, where he’s developing a Brooklyn food hall of fame to accompany a sports complex opening in September. I’ve asked him to join me for some food (his choice) and conversation (mine).

Edible Brooklyn: As you know, our magazine seeks to define and celebrate Brooklyn cuisine. You literally wrote the books on where to eat in this town. Tell me about the foods of Brooklyn.

Ed Levine: Labor-intensive handmade food is under siege in contemporary culture, but it’s still thriving in Brooklyn, and the infusion of hipsters has reinvigorated it. They recognize the value in old style, third-generation bakers and sausage makers because they’re searching for things that are real. In part thanks to them, Brooklyn’s still full of honest food.

EB: And Manhattan’s not?

EL: Space has gotten too expensive in Manhattan. Look at Little Italy—there’s virtually nothing there worth eating. It’s not alive anymore. Little Italy’s sausage makers are gone. The one good place left, Faicco’s, has become a curiosity. But Brooklyn’s food communities are still intact, still alive, and they’re being reinvigorated by two things: attention from hipsters, and a next generation willing to take over the family business.

EB: How are you defining hipster?

EL: Non-ethnic middle class yuppies who grew up in the suburbs but moved to the city for their career. This new collision of generations and demographics makes Brooklyn’s food great. And it’s happening all over Brooklyn where new people are moving in. These were very homogenous enclaves until even just five years ago.

EB: So you deem Brooklyn’s food the most interesting in NYC?

EL: I do, but it’s very close with Queens, which also still has affordable housing. Hipsters there are half an hour from their jobs in Times Square.

EB: Hey, where are we headed?

EL: Let’s hit Coney Island. That’s a place hipsters haven’t discovered it yet. It’s a little far from Manhattan, but I mean hello! It’s oceanfront! And it’s totally accessible by public transportation.

At Totonno’s Ed orders a pie, half sausage, half white.
EL: This is the best pizza in New York City. It’s the church of pizza. They do one thing, and do it perfectly. This couldn’t happen in Manhattan, not even at Lombardi’s, which I really like. This place is as it was 50 years ago, completely unchanged. They stubbornly resist aged or pre-grated mozzarella. The sausage is still made locally. Forget wood, it’s a coal-fired oven. Inferior ingredients would be cheaper and easier, but the owner’s integrity won’t allow it. This is a true Brooklyn place. It’s about people believing in what they’re doing and sticking to it for reasons that aren’t financial.

The owner, Cookie, was outside finishing a cigarette when we arrived, but now she greets Ed like the old friend he is. Her makeup is bright and her hair perfectly coiffed.
EB: Ed says you’d be more profitable if you used cheaper ingredients, but that you’re not in business for the money. Come on.

Cookie: We don’t make money here, but it’s important to us. This is my grandfather’s recipe, we don’t change it. This is the way he told us. Other people wouldn’t waste the time to make fresh dough. Our dough never sees a refrigerator. That makes it light.

EL: Her dad was a visionary. He was one of the first pizza makers at Lombardi’s and wanted to go out on his own. Coney Island was a vibrant Italian neighborhood then. Cookie’s son Lawrence went to college and took a job in Vegas but now he’s back. That’s the Brooklyn trend, that arc of coming back. Places like this are emblematic of Brooklyn. The fact that they’re still here says something about the borough, that there’s still a culture of real, honest food that hasn’t been tarnished by time.

EB: Surely that’s not as unique as you make it sound. New York is full of authentic pizza.

EL: People lose the thread. Look at John’s on Bleecker Street. John Sasso would be turning over in his grave to see aged mozzarella and canned sauce. You feel it. You walk into this place, there’s something about it. It strikes you as a parallel universe. That’s why these places are so important, because people can still taste and touch something real. And they’re willing to pay for that, which they should. I believe that people who can afford to buy better food must. These places are important, not just to Brooklyn, but to our culture.

EB: But most people I know who live in Brooklyn have never been here.

EL: If people want to be ostriches, that’s their problem. There are enough who recognize the value of real and honest food. I was here once and foodie tourists from Scotland were at the next table. People know it represents something profoundly important to our country.

Back in the car we drive north towards Pies and Thighs, which we’ve both been wanting to try.
EL: Williamsburg and Greenpoint are fascinating now. I don’t think I even mentioned either in the first editions of my book.

As he drives, Ed gives a shout out to Brooklyn’s diversity.
EL: Here’s Chinatown, there’s a Sephardic community. Look, Middle Eastern food, Asian pastry, Syrian Jews next to a Caribbean neighborhood. They intermingle over time, and that’s what defines Brooklyn. I’m not saying you’ll find a jerk chicken knish, but you might.

EB: So will the differences eventually blur?

EL: That’s just it. Brooklyn is fascinating because it’s NOT homogenous but works anyway. It’s so varied and that variety is in the food in the best possible way. Smith Street is fine and I’m happy that young chefs can open their own places. But people need to get out of those hipster enclaves and see what this borough is about. People need to get outside themselves.

EB: Get outside themselves?

EL: People go to a Thai restaurant and think they’re exploring. This place is becoming insular. It’s not all about Franny’s and Planet Thailand and Marlow & Sons, though I love those places. It’s a class thing. Cookie’s not your sorority sister but that’s precisely why your life will be richer if you meet her. Andrew (the chef and owner of Franny’s) has cooked in fine restaurants, but didn’t even visit Totonno’s before opening Franny’s. He’s in this place, but he’s not of this place.

EB: What do you mean, “it’s a class thing?”

EL: You know, there’s Brooklyn (he drops his voice two octaves and throatily pronounces the word as if his name is Vinny) and there’s Brooklyn (he enunciates politely like a charm school graduate). People who live in the latter don’t want to venture into the former, they see it as somehow beneath them. But food is our common ground. It’s an easy path to get outside yourself. You’re probably not going to buy the potency elixir in a Carribean neighborhood, but you might buy the jerk chicken. That’s what’s so exhilarating about Brooklyn. Go for a day to Dyker Heights or East Flatbush or Bensonhurst. You don’t have to change your whole life—just experience something real for an afternoon.

EB: You keep referring to what’s real. What does that word mean to you?

EL: It’s probably not the right term, but by real food, I mean food from previous generations with nothing faux about it.

EB: You mean unlike “Brooklyn Diner USA” in Midtown?

EL: Right. Actually the food there is really good, but it’s not real. It’s designed and calculated.

We arrive at Pies and Thighs and order one of everything. As a boom box blares Bon Jovi and Guns N’ Roses, we perch on two of the four stools that face the tiny makeshift kitchen, which is clearly in over its newborn head. On the counter next to me are bags of hamburger buns and cartons of buttermilk, still in the plastic corner-store bags. I guess the fridge was full. Out comes our pie, a slice of barely sweetened apple, and another of silky rich peanut butter and chocolate.
EL: Pie first—I love it! This is totally what I’m talking about in every way. Some deviation of artsy post-modern Williamsburg people are trying to do honest food!

Beacon’s Closet-outfitted Williamsburgers amble in, but the cook begs his co-owner, “Don’t take any more orders for chicken!”
EL: They totally don’t know what they’re doing! It’s 6:30 on a Saturday and they’re out of their signature dish! But to me there’s only one question: is it delicious? Nothing else matters. Somebody in this place knows what delicious is.

As our fried chicken, hush puppies, pulled pork, and collards arrive, more guests walk in, and the woman at the counter has bad news for them: They’re closed. “We got reviewed this week,” she apologizes, “and we’re out of food. We usually serve 50 people on a Saturday, and today we served hundreds.”
EL: This was the first day they were slammed, and they don’t have it down yet. We got here just in time. You know, this is impossibly endearing. We’re in an alley eating pork shoulder that was cooked in a smoker this guy found in his backyard. He’s trying to cook the food he knows and loves, the food he believes. Post-modern meets the South. Like this honest biscuit.

EB: You and your terms. What makes a biscuit honest?

EL: Honest food is true to itself. It’s not affected. When you cook honest food, you’re cooking who you are, like this guy is. This food is as honest as Cookie’s pizza.

EB: Wait, these two restaurants are stratospheres apart.

EL: No, they’re not. Don’t you see? And what they have in common is emblematic of Brooklyn. People here cook from their hearts, with passion, whether they’re the fourth generation to run a business or four years out of culinary school. It’s why Brooklyn is so exciting to me as a food destination. Brooklyn allows its cooks to be true to themselves in a way that Manhattan doesn’t, simply because the economic barriers are lower. Cookie’s father moved from the East Village in the 20s for the same reason that these guys opened in this hole in the wall this spring. It’s economics—Brooklyn allows people to pursue their dreams. People used to be able to do it on the Lower East Side, but no longer. That’s why Smith Street developed the way it did. Places there must cost a third what they would in Manhattan. Young people who went to FCI and worked in major kitchens have a chance to create.

EB: So what’s your message to the people you call Brooklyn’s hipsters?

EL: Experience something new, whether jerk chicken or Italian Bensonhurst, foods good enough to make you cry. You’ll see very different kinds of dive bars, that are much less affected. You’ll learn that great food can come out of a completely different aesthetic and cultural milieu from what you know.

Editor’s note: Planet Thailand has closed.

Transubstantiation at Totonno’s.