My quintessential Roberta’s Pizza moment is probably the sunny Tuesday afternoon I sat out in the back: Thin Lizzy on the stereo, someone smoking weed outside on the graffitied sidewalk, Roberta’s rooftop garden slowly growing towards puffy clouds. A group of hipster dudes was plotting their next allages rock-show-cum-bike-polo tourney at the picnic table beside me, another group of hipster dudes was taping a segment in the glass-walled Heritage Radio Network station behind me (it’s in a converted shipping container on the patio, naturally) and a thin, craggily crusted Beastmaster pizza appeared before me. Topped with Berkshire pork sausage, Gorgonzola, jalapeños, capers and red onions, it had been charred to pie perfection in Roberta’s white-tiled pizza oven, which, along with the stacked-to-ceiling pile of logs that fuel it and the towering cans of pomodori tomatoes that get simmered into sauce, invoke an air of undisclosed pizza bunker. The Beastmaster, by the way, seems to be available only at lunch—and then only rarely—because at Roberta’s, that’s the way they roll.
Or, maybe, now that I think about it, my quintessential Roberta’s Pizza experience is the night Michael Jackson died. Strangers toasted him with pitchers of Brooklyn-brewed Kelso St. Gowanus suds while I played MJ’s greatest hits (including every second of “We Are the World,” as per request) on my iPhone, the tables singing along in memoriam, waving cigarettes and slices of Margherita to the tinny tunes.
No, wait, forget all that: My quintessential Roberta’s Pizza story is definitely the time I walked in to find a crowd of Vikings celebrating a birthday, their ship one of the long communal wood tables. They sat, horned hats, shoulders bare, fur vests and all, the grunting crowd digging into—make that ripping into—roofgrown greens, housemade pastas and slow-roasted lamb, their “arghs” echoing into the night.
Things often echo into the night at Roberta’s, which, despite being named for co-owner Chris Parachini’s mom, feels less like a family business and more like a conceptual art happening, though one where the mismatched chairs at the mismatched tables look like the crap even your aesthetically challenged younger brother passes up at garage sales. Indeed Parachini has called the restaurant a “multifaceted compound,” and that’s on the money: At any given time various parties (of Brooklyn players in art and food and music) gather while various projects (planned and unplanned) take over this long, warehousey space a block from the Morgan Avenue L stop. Tiny starter plants bound for the winterized rooftop greenhouse bedeck windowsills; bread is baked each Wednesday and Saturday mornings for two new tiny Bushwick farmers’ markets; a wood-fed fireplace appears one day in front of the bar; a deejay spins for a picnic in the brand-new beer garden; and perhaps most surprisingly for a pizza place, fried chicken (damn good fried chicken, complete with a kickass buttered biscuit and lightly dressed Bibb lettuce leaves, some of the prettiest you’ve ever seen) takes the menu by storm.
“We are most interested in the creative process,” says Parachini of himself and the other “eight or nine” owners who pitched in to start the restaurant in 2008. (Only three, Parachini, Brandon Hoy and Carlo Mirarchi, the head chef, typically work there.) “We have a really hard time saying no to anything. It’s a pretty chaotic thing over here. We don’t have any hard-and-fast rules.”
That’s not to say you shouldn’t take Roberta’s food seriously— the Times did twice, bestowing a glowing “$25 and Under” write-up just three months after the place opened, prompting an all-night celebratory drinking binge that rendered the proprietors ill-equipped to handle the next day’s Manhattan crowds or insistent calls from a California investor who wanted to franchise the place sight unseen (Parachini recalls they kept hanging up on him, convinced it was a friend’s prank.).
In an industry of lofty ambitions, their disbelief was born of decidedly simple vision. “In the early days,” recalls Parachini, “we wanted the food to be great, but it was supposed to be about having a place in the neighborhood. We weren’t serious committed career-oriented restaurateurs, and I think if you spent any amount of time with us, you’d be hard-pressed to say we are now.” Despite that notion—or perhaps because of it—the culinary courage of the kitchens (indeed there are two: the pizza oven up front, the kitchen for everything else in back) has expanded from punked-out pies (guanciale and egg; ramps, pepperoncini oil and Parmigiana breadcrumbs; the Axl Rosenberg with jalapeños, double garlic and sopressata) to the likes of roasted hen of the woods mushrooms with thyme and flat iron steaks with charred lettuce at dinner, and housemade yogurt, fried eggs and pork hash at brunch. Those come courtesy of new cooks lured to the line, says Parachini: “We got a lot of kids involved here with culinary skills that really blow us out of the water.”
Those include serious chefs—like Gabe McMackin, whose previous gigs included serving as executive chef to Martha Stewart and manning the stoves at Blue Hill—who dig the anything-goes atmosphere over the regimented royalty of Manhattan’s four-starred spots.
As a result, big-name chefs like Mark Ladner (of Del Posto) and Alice Waters (of, well, you know) have journeyed to this industrial block, with Waters even kicking in the literal seed money for the rooftop garden that sprouted last spring. “We kind of hit it off with her,” explains Parachini without a trace of the braggadocio another restaurateur would display when referencing a relationship with the country’s high priestess of slow food. “She’s been awesome.”
Chefs citywide labor for decades dreaming of successes like these—but Chris and company never set out to secure a place in the Pantheon of Important Food, calling to mind the way David Chang’s unexpected Momofuku empire (a silly surprise to him, at first) was the result of the chef just cooking what he wanted.
Parachini’s slacker trajectory boasts evictions from some of Manhattan’s best prep schools, getting fired at 17 from his dad’s own restaurant and bouncing around until landing in Greenpoint in ’89 like a Sooner in the Oklahoma land rush. A few years ago he again moved to uncharted territory—Bushwick—and “had been living through the dearth of anything to eat.” Not that he cared so much. “Yeah, I’d been out with friends for the foodie experience,” he says with an implied barf face. So how’d he wind up with toppings like Berkshire guanciale and housemade mozz?
“I’ve always been a pizza aficionado,” he explains, his bloodshot green-gray eyes peering out from under his Wolfensohn Electric Inc. camo cap. “And a few years ago my uncle was, like, ‘You gotta go to New Haven for pizza,'” says Parachini of the pilgrimage-worthy pies at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana. “It blew my mind.”
When his Italian chum Mauro Soggiu, a now-co-owner who was there that fateful night, heard word of a wood-fired oven going for cheap in the mother country, Parachini’s eyes were as big as pies. “Not to be cheesy, but it was like a sign from God. I was like, ‘fuck, you know? We gotta open a pizzeria.'” They found the space and flew to Italy to train with a master pizzaiola. “We drank a lotta espresso and grappa,” remembers Parachini through the fog. What happened next is a bit of a blur, complete with the oven swirling in a lost-cargo shipping nightmare that sounds like a bad trip.
But they prevailed. Used to Bushwick loft build-outs, the boys completed the space themselves in a matter of months, in and out of the space continuously since to cut two-by-fours for the hungry oven or to wax poetic on pastured proteins—a menu mainstay. One night a host in a sauce-splattered Pan Am T who looks like a flabby stoner speaks knowledgeably about swine, counseling us through house-cured prosciutto options and steering us wisely toward fingerlings cooked in goose fat and crowned with a duck egg. “Ohmigod, smell, smell!” he urges later, shoving a side of Brussels sprouts up to my startled face. A kazoo performance blares through the speakers, followed by heavy-hitting classic rock that gets the tatted among the crowd (always the majority) sending up the devil hands.
Whether customers come for the food or the feel, most nights nearly every table is full, cluttered with canning jars of beer, pizza pans and dinner plates swiped clean of their olive oil or goose fat schmears with the last bits of crust, platters of that perfect fried chicken, bones wisely picked clean.
Yet, despite the transition from slacker pizza joint (well, almost) to a packed, Waters-blessed culinary compound in just two years, Parachini is still amazed at the place’s draw. “We just never saw Roberta’s as being anything but a focal point for the neighborhood,” he says. “I can’t believe people get on a fucking train and come out here.”
But we do. And it’s well worth it.
Rachel Wharton is Edible Brooklyn’s deputy editor. She likes pizza.