Fried Dough and Formica

An indie do(ugh)nut roundup.

doughnuts 1I first heard about Peter Pan Donut and Pastry from a friend one night over a beer. “Not only are the doughnuts good,” he told me, “but the waitresses wear green retro diner skirts. And they’re really short.” “The skirts or the waitresses?” I asked.

“The skirts,” he answered.

Peter Pan had everything I look for in a local doughnut hole: Formica counter tops, loads of neighborhood charm and rack after rack of freshly made doughnuts, so plump they seemed to burst through their crispy-fried exterior. It’s the kind of place that brings unlikely subcultures together—it’s not uncommon to see a table of old Polish men adjacent to a crowd of 20-somethings in black frames and vintage tees, all being served by young women in unintentionally kitschy (and, yes, short) waitress dresses. But while Peter Pan maintains a doughnut stronghold on its neighborhood, one can’t help but wonder if places like it can survive in the face of corporate competition like Dunkin’ Donuts. Or will the mom-and-pop doughnut shop cede victory to the convenience and reliability of a mass-produced doughnut and a Coffee Coolatta?

Fried dough is a common cultural phenomenon, and it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly who brought the doughnut to New York first, but slews of Italian, Dutch and Eastern European immigrants all fried up their own version in the early part of the last century. By the 1920s, the doughnut had gained national attention, thanks in part to the Salvation Army’s so-called doughnut lassies, who served them to front-line troops during World War I (doughnuts were often fried in a soldier’s helmet).

“By the ’60s and ’70s, doughnut shops were booming around here, especially Peter Pan,” says lifelong Greenpoint resident Donna Siafakas, who purchased the store in 1993 with her husband Christos. “But the chains were moving in. You know, they used doughnut mixes from the bag. We were a step up. At Peter Pan, it’s not a mix.”

When Christos and Donna took control of Peter Pan from its former owner, who had founded the shop nearly 40 years prior, they decided to keep the original doughnut recipe, twice daily frying a blend of flour, eggs, yeast, water, vanilla and the “secret ingredient,” which, understandably, Donna cannot disclose. The homemade dough gives Peter Pan’s doughnuts a fresh-from-the-oven cake flavor, while the doughnuts’ enormous size provides more body to balance the sweet glazes and frostings slathered on the surface. Doughnuts at franchises are typically smaller, and what little flavor they have is lost under thick layers of dry, sugary coating or synthetic-tasting fillings. Unlike these chain-born varieties, every doughnut at Peter Pan is hand cut, giving each a unique textural and visual identity rather than a machine-produced uniformity. But Peter Pan’s charm doesn’t stop with the doughnuts themselves, Christos and Donna maintain the warm atmosphere Greenpointers have come to expect.

“People walk in the door and I know them by their first names. I know their problems, too. It’s like, ‘Mary, how’s your tooth today?’ Because she had a toothache yesterday. You know what’s going on in their lives,” says Donna. “I don’t know if Dunkin’ Donuts really has that.”

There are over 60 Dunkin’ Donuts in Brooklyn. This past August, one opened down the street from Peter Pan on the corner of Manhattan and Bedford Avenues. There’s another one close by, where Manhattan meets Greenpoint Avenue. But Donna’s not worried. “To be honest, the area has exploded with all these young artist types moving in, so there’s room for everybody. It hasn’t hurt me in any way. Not at all.”

But this isn’t the case all across Brooklyn. Just last year in Park Slope, Dee Dee’s Donut closed down mere months after a Dunkin’ went in around the corner. Dee Dee’s had been a neighborhood staple for over 30 years, pleasing generations of Brooklynites in search of a fresh, fat and gooey raspberry-jelly-filled and a hot cup of coffee. Up the street sits the 5th Avenue Coffee Shop, a comfortable 12 blocks away from the nearest Dunkin’, and, at least for the moment, safe from the orange and purple Goliath.

“Sure, I worry about them moving in,” says the proprietor, Chris, whose father opened the shop in 1975. “But as long as you have good food and good service you will survive.”

In nearby Carroll Gardens, two Dunkin’ locations have opened this year, one on Court Street and one on Smith. In February, Peter Ungaro, the man responsible for the franchises, told the New York Daily News that he chose the neighborhood because “It didn’t have any Dunkin’ presence.” To dissuade local umbrage, Mr. Ungaro promised to give his stores a “brownstone look.” I guess to him, “brownstone” means a radioactive color scheme and garish signage advertising the chain’s new French Toast Twist, a coil of pastry with the consistency of a stale dinner roll and a sugary coating more akin in flavor and texture to a sheet of linoleum than a glaze. Dunkin’ Donuts failed to return my calls.

Now, to be fair, I’ve eaten my share of Dunkin’s products in my day. While a fix for an urgent sugar craving, the chain’s overly sweetened and bland baked goods lack the fresh, distinct flavors of the genuine homemade article, the euphoria of vanilla, the creamy pleasure of real chocolate frosting.

At the moment, Ungaro faces next to no competition in Carroll Gardens. Even the suggestively named Donut House, which was primarily a doughnut shop when it opened in 1976, has since transitioned into a diner. “This was the last real doughnut shop in the neighborhood,” sighs the man working the counter at Donut House. A customer chimes in, “Yep, and there’ll never be another thanks to Dunkin’ Donuts.”

Anger comes easily at the thought of chains moving in and putting local shops like Dee Dee’s out of business, or preventing new independent doughnut makers from opening up. And justifiably so. But maybe Chris and Donna are right. Maybe quality ingredients, neighborly service and a sense of homegrown authenticity will prevail. Or at least happily coexist with a franchised nemesis.

Although gentrification brings shifting sands to many Brooklyn neighborhoods, the borough’s independent doughnut culture has the ability to unify, as neighbors of every stripe line up for the real thing. We wouldn’t be caught dead palming a puny, artificially flavored corporate doughnut. Brooklyn is loyal to its own. We want to sit at the same Formica counter our forebears sat at, arguing over the latest election and enjoying the comforts of a softball-sized wad of warm, homemade, fried dough.

Like at Mike’s Donuts in Bay Ridge. For over 30 years, Brooklynites have waited at the Formica countertop for homemade freshly fried doughnuts that bulge at the seams—from a distance, one could easily mistake them for now-massive New York bagels (well, maybe not the frosted ones). Gus Neamonitis, who runs Mike’s with his father and brother-in-law, believes in his shop and in the strength of Brooklyn’s independent doughnut culture. “When Dunkin’ moved in down the block, our business actually shot up. For every coffee they sell, we sell 10. There will always be local doughnut shops around here. Brooklynites are loyal and want to support their neighborhood. Plus, our doughnuts taste better.”

Indeed they do.

MAY WE RECOMMEND:

Peter Pan Donut and Pastry, 727 Manhattan Avenue, Greenpoint.

Amidst the Polish delis and crowded pizza joints of Manhattan Avenue sits this bustling doughnut dealer. Make sure to try an apple crumb and a chocolate-frosted. The crumbs are tiny, fried pieces of dough, each essentially a miniature doughnut, and the rich frosting is made using heavy cream and Guittard chocolate. If you prefer doughnuts of a more manageable size, grab a bagful of assorted doughnut holes. One bite of the soft, subtly sweet dough, and you’ll never eat a Munchkin again.

Mike’s Donuts, 6822 5th Avenue, Bay Ridge.

After talking politics with the regulars, try a soft and delicious marble twist—it’s like eating two doughnuts at once. For the especially cheap, Mike’s has one of the best deals around: three doughnuts for one dollar!

7th Avenue Donut Shop, 324 7th Avenue, Park Slope.

Satisfying lunch seekers and night owls alike, this classic greasy spoon serves up hearty homemade doughnuts and filling diner fare 24 hours a day. Their plain-glazed is one of the best in Brooklyn—light, soft and not too sweet—as is their subtly flavored chocolate cake dough- nut (it’s light brown thanks to restrained chocolate infusion).

5th Avenue Coffee Shop, 212 5th Avenue, Park Slope.

Okay, we know this vintage eatery imports their doughnuts from an outside bakery, but they more than make up for it in local color and genuine atmosphere. Barely more than a long countertop and a handful of swivel stools, it’s the perfect place for a cheap yet satisfying doughnut. Their filled varieties are a sure bet—light, airy and stuffed with either globs of jelly or smooth cream. The total bill for coffee and a doughnut? A mere 90 cents.

Editor’s note: 5th Avenue Coffee Shop has closed.

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