In 2007, Bushwick favorite Roberta’s was an empty cinderblock bunker rented from an Orthodox Jewish couple, pleased that the space was being leased for a pizza place. Five years later, the bunker is an eatery with a rooftop garden, named one of Bon Appétit’s 20 Most Important Restaurants in America, with a name synonymous with a certain brand of Bushwick. Now, the guys behind Roberta’s have a cookbook, full of recipes for their pizzas, pastas, meats, and desserts, punctuated with photos and stories from the early days when chef Carlo Mirarchi cooked with a toaster oven and a butane burner. We spoke with Mirarchi about the new cookbook (in stores October 29), the restaurant’s fast ascension, and the past five years in Bushwick.
The stories in the cookbook make it sound like Roberta’s began as just a fun project between friends that became bigger with time.
Yeah, I mean definitely for us, you know, the cool thing about doing the book for us was that it gave us an opportunity to… we had to force ourselves to sort of spend some time on looking back and figuring out exactly how certain things came to be, and how we got to where we are, and all that kind of stuff, which was really interesting for us.
Well, what was interesting was that we all sort of worked independently of each other for the writing process, and then once we had a manuscript and had the book pretty much figured out, we all read it. So, at that point, we tweaked it and made some changes and stuff. You know Chris my business partner did all the writing, which is pretty awesome, I think. It’s just very nice to read. It was kind of a surprise to me, you know, because none of us read it until it was pretty much finished. In that way, we each kind of got to do our own thing, like I did the recipes, obviously. And looking back we all had these different pieces that we put together to make the book.
What was the most interesting part of the process for you?
Yeah, for me the photography was really interesting because that’s all stuff that we’ve had for years. We spent a really, really huge amount of time locating the old photographs, figuring out who took them so we can give proper credit, that to me was more of a blast-from-the-past thing. Because it’s really spread all over, all over the world. Different people we had known who took pictures, some of our own stuff that we had photographed that we thought we had lost a long time ago. So it was amazing that it all survived.
In the book you talk about what Bushwick was like when you opened the restaurant in 2007 — you say Williamsburg was already a bit overblown, but Bushwick was a place for artists. Bushwick has changed a lot since you opened in 2007, do you still think of it as a place for artists?
I don’t really know about that. But what I’m impressed by is the short amount of time, five years really isn’t that much time, but the neighborhood has changed so much in that very short period. I guess the main difference is that it’s a neighborhood now, and when we first went there, it was much, much, much more industrial. You know, people lived there, but there wasn’t really any sense of a neighborhood there. It was just kind of a place where people lived, and that was it. There were a couple bars and stuff. But now, it feels much more of a neighborhood, like now you can actually go out in Bushwick and spend a night in Bushwick doing things, or an afternoon, or whatever. You definitely could’ve done that five years ago, but you would’ve had way fewer choices.
Yeah, definitely. There’s so much more. It’s not just restaurants, either. There are a lot of bars, a lot of really interesting kind of low-key parties that are really, really fun. It still feels in a way that you can kind of get away with a lot of stuff there that you can’t get away with in other parts of Brooklyn. It definitely is an interesting place to be, I think, and it attracts a certain type of individual that makes it even more interesting.
Some of my favorite stories in the cookbook were about how in the early days you would cook things in your apartment in Manhattan and then bring them on the subway to Roberta’s, and then you would put them in a toaster oven.
We didn’t have gas for the first year, so there wasn’t really anything to cook with. We had a toaster oven that Brandon [Hoy] brought from his house and butane burners that we used as a stovetop. We literally had a stovetop and an oven, but there was no gas so we couldn’t use it. So, we had the butane burners on top of the actual burners and we did that for over a year, which was, in a way, a huge pain in the ass, obviously, but it also made us really focused and really disciplined in figuring out what we can do really, really well, and that’s all that really matters. We’re going to work with what we have, and set it up so we can do things really, really well with the stuff that we have. So it kind of set the tone for how we did a lot of other things, in that we always tried to do the best that we possibly could with the constraints that we had set up already.
I guess what I would say is that you just have to deal with the process, you know? And the process itself can be incredibly soul sucking, in a way. But I think what’s important is to understand what your vision is, and to try to really focus on that. And all the little things… you know, if you’re doing something to the best of your ability, a lot of the little things kind of just fall into place. It could take a year, it could take two years, it could take three years, but as long as you’re staying true to what it is you really want to do, I feel like all those little things find a way of sorting themselves out.
Roberta’s has become very successful over a short amount of time, and in the book you talk about a shift in the restaurant’s mood after the first positive New York Times review, that suddenly things went from very casual and laid back to something more structured or even formal. Do you feel nostalgic for the early stages at all?
Not really, honestly. I’ll always look back on the past with a certain sense of simplicity. I mean, things were certainly less complicated, for the most part. We had a lot less people to manage then. But, I think we had a tendency to focus on the future rather than on the past.
For me, personally, I can’t wait until the book is over. I can’t wait until I’m done with all the obligations I have for the book [laughs], that’s something I’m really looking forward to. But honestly, getting the book done was a really huge undertaking for us, and obviously we had a lot of other stuff going on, too. So to actually go through the process of it, actually being able to see it, to touch it, and look at it. Now having it come out this month is something that we’re really glad to be able to finish and have done.
We’re doing a dinner on the West Coast. I’ll be in San Francisco, Portland, and Los Angeles, and I’m doing another dinner in the city with a good chef friend of mine in November, and I think that’s it. And then we’re having a bunch of parties for the week of Halloween when the book comes out.
All of the vegetable recipes are pretty straightforward, they’re really accessible and I think that you’d be surprised with the end product because the recipes are pretty simple and straightforward, but I think you can get really nice results, and maybe even come out with something you didn’t necessarily expect that you’d end up with at the beginning of the recipe.