Our 99 Essential Restaurant Owners Offer a Glimpse Behind the Scenes


This week we present our 99 Essential Restaurants® in Brooklyn, a compendium of eateries that, together, form the borough’s culinary fabric. While building the issue, we spoke to many of the people behind those restaurants, and they divulged their visions, their favorite memories, their insights into their neighborhoods, and more. Here are a few excerpts from those conversations.

Joe Pasqualetto, Rucola chef, on opening: “Just opening was so exciting. We’re putting out so much more food than we ever imagined. We started with eight things and we do around thirty now. The first night we opened, we had 150 people. Within two weeks, we were doing breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When we were working on the restaurant, people in the neighborhood would come by asking, ‘When are you going to open? When are you going to open?’ When we did, they were lined up outside. It was a shotgun start.”

Joseph Ogrodnek, Battersby owner, on humble beginnings: “Battersby was originally supposed to be a small restaurant where co-owner Walker [Stern] and I could get started and get our names out there. We didn’t have high expectations of the food menu because the place was so small and our means were so limited. We opened that restaurant on a shoestring; we had a budget that any sane restaurateur would laugh at. But after we started working there we kept trying these ambitious menu items because that’s really what we know, what we trained doing, and probably what we do best. We found a way to make it work in that tiny space. And after a little while, we got some recognition, and the restaurant started filling up.”

Matthew Stucky, James general manager, on being a neighborhood restaurant: “We’re kind of in the neighborhood and of the neighborhood. The owners have lived here twenty years. Most of the staff live here. Thirty to 45 percent of our regulars, we know the names, what they do, and where they live. It’s the comfortable place on the corner where you come when you don’t want to cook for yourself.”

Doug Crowell, Buttermilk Channel owner, on small-town Brooklyn: “My favorite thing about my experience in Brooklyn restaurants is this amazing community that we’re part of and build. There are hundreds of people who met each other through the restaurant. It’s rewarding to connect people through the restaurant. Brooklyn is a small town. I worked in Manhattan restaurants. You know regulars, but [restaurants there] feel like a public space. You feel like a community here. Regulars from Buttermilk Channel had eight of my staff over for Christmas.”

Sharon Pachter, The Grocery owner, on wine-buying: “We don’t cover all the bases. It changes a lot. We buy whatever we like to drink, and if it doesn’t have name recognition, we like to talk to people about it and taste. It’s very selfishly driven — we buy what we like to drink and hope we can describe it well enough to get other people onboard.”

Michael Schall, owner of Locanda Vini e Olii, on being part of — and apart from — the restaurant business: “It’s funny — the longer I’ve been in this business, the less and less I care about the NYC dining scene. I used to think about it a lot, comparing our place to other new and established restaurants. Now I just try to focus on running our restaurant as well as we can, to keep our staff trained, knowledgeable, and friendly, and to make people feel welcome and comfortable from the moment they walk in the door.”

Josh Foster, Stone Park Cafe owner, on evolution: “The wine list includes 325 bottles; we started with 65. We always wanted really good food; now our food is more often great. We weren’t searching for two stars from the Times; we were hoping to be in the $25-and-under category. We were thrilled when we got two stars. We’ve since opened an event space. We’ve become a much more evolved, complicated restaurant than we set out to be.”

Mark Henegan, Madiba owner, on helping a homesick patron scratch an itch: “An Indian cab driver from South Africa just happened to pass by. He saw the sign and screeched on his brakes. He pulled outside the restaurant in the early evening. He had been living in the U.S. for seventeen years and was so homesick; he was sitting at the bar crying. He sat there all night, gave us the keys to his cab to move it, and called the dispatcher telling him he went home.”

Matthew Grogan, Juliana’s owner, on defining a genre: “We are trying to redefine what authentic New York–style pizza is. We’re not trying to be Neapolitan, Roman, Sicilian — this is New York–style pizza, the way it was introduced in the early twentieth century. It’s not the slice place on the corner with the gas oven and processed cheese and substandard ingredients — this is the definitive New York original. That’s what Pat [Grimaldi] did in the 1990s — he brought back the coal oven, a technology that had gone away. It makes a huge difference. It’s a complicated appliance. It’s like running a steam locomotive. There are lots of parts to manage; it’s not something that many people know how to do. Pat is the only living link to the coal-fired era, when it first was here. This is not something you can buy; it’s built by hand, by a skilled mason who knows how to build this type of oven.”

Research: Sara Ventiera