(photo: Leonardo Mascaro)

When Bushwick DIY venue Palisades closed in 2016 after an unsuccessful quest to get up to code following a police raid, we briefly brainstormed what the space at 906 Broadway might become. A corporate music venue, a new Vice headquarters, some kind of chain store? None of these appeared, but in June a Sicilian “casual dining experience” called Concrete officially began serving dinner and weekend brunch there, with plans to begin hosting live events later this fall.

A slick Sicilian spot with not-exactly-cheap entrees replacing a beloved independent music venue might seem like a clear-cut sign of a neighborhood changing in favor of those with deeper pockets, but the team behind Concrete are artists who have never opened a restaurant before. The owner, Francesco Alessi, is a jazz drummer and composer, and the general manager, Candace Fong, is a visual artist. Some of her work, a series of eye-catching drawings of chickens, hangs on the restaurant’s walls, and she assisted with the space’s interior design, which includes colorful accents, navy blue walls, and plenty of plants.

(photo: Leonardo Mascaro)

“The foremost idea for [Concrete] was to make a space for people like ourselves who are creative, so we really want to get the community involved,” Fong tells Bedford + Bowery. Fittingly, the art adorning the walls and shelves is a mix of local and Sicilian artists. 

Concrete’s owner hails from Sicily, as do its chefs (there are two on staff, and guest chefs have put their own spin on the menu from time to time). Alessi has lived in Bushwick for eight years, Fong has for two, and almost the entirety of the rest of their staff lives within a “two mile radius” of the restaurant.

Despite this proximity, she says they’ve already received claims the restaurant is just another joint catering to gentrifiers. “We are not trying to do that. We are neighborhood people, there’s a variety of different backgrounds,” says Fong. “I mean, we are a part of that wave, and our customer base is mostly people who have just moved here because they want to see what’s new. So that’s a big challenge for us, making sure the community feels comfortable with us. We can’t not be a part of [gentrification] because it’s already happening. I hope people feel we are being considerate, because we are from the neighborhood.”

The name “Concrete” has various origins: it’s a common factor between Sicily and New York City—historically, Sicilians have stopped the destructive flow of lava from the Mount Etna volcano by throwing concrete blocks in its path, and New York is, of course, known as a concrete jungle. Secondly, Fong says when the two-year process from acquiring the space to opening was finally making tangible headway, “we were like alright, this is concrete.”

(photo: Paul Quitoriano)

Their team’s Sicilian heritage lends a certain authenticity to the cuisine, particularly the street-food-inspired small plates like the eggplant and red pepper dish caponata, served with panelle (chickpea fritters), and an indulgent-sounding deep fried mozzarella sandwich. And yes, there are still more familiar Italian classics like burrata and ragu (with gluten-free pasta options), plus a variety of burgers, including vegan sliders.

It has also led to some humorous challenges—while developing their brunch menu, Fong explains the Sicilian chefs were initially unfamiliar with some American morning staples, like French toast and pancakes. But the brunch menu still contains a hearty mix of traditional fare like eggs benedict (prosciutto is a topping option) and yes, pancakes, plus most of their dinner menu.

Fong says some people have indeed been put off by the restaurant’s pricing (most items are in the $12 to $14 range, with some exceptions, like the $20 seafood-filled linguine allo scoglio), but notes they did what they could to keep prices low while still using high-quality, local ingredients. Their tomato sauce and balsamic vinegar, among others, is DOP certified (ensuring products are locally produced in Italy). Their cocktail syrups are made in-house, their bread is from Balthazar, their meat is from Astoria-based International Meat Market, and their seafood is from Out of the Blue, which operates in the Bronx and Hampton Bays.

“It’s all grass-fed, it’s all free-range, all of that, it costs money. Wingstop is down the street [and] is like $10 for a lot of wings, but you don’t really know what happened to those chickens,” she says. “We can at least say, ‘Oh yeah, this is our butcher, this is our seafood place.’”

(photo: Paul Quitoriano)

As different as the interior may now look, Fong says the legacy of Palisades has far from faded. “People are very committed. When they come in, they’re like, ‘This was Palisades,’” she explains, mentioning a time someone pointed out to her where exactly they once passed out on the building’s floor. “It’s really hard, because obviously it’s a brand new space. It’s been a long time, too, since Palisades closed. And we’re just not trying to do that. We know what it was, but also that’s not even the capacity of what this space can do anymore.”

The stage from the building’s DIY days is still there, however, and they do plan to utilize it. Their live events are TBD, but they’re toying with the idea of smaller jazz or acoustic shows—ideally original tunes from people in the neighborhood. “I know we’re not trying to be a tacky Italian restaurant. So the vibe was not to do covers, definitely don’t want to do like, a singer at dinner.”

This doesn’t mean anything else is off the table; Fong says while they’re not trying to replicate the programming of their neighbors Cafe Erzulie and Bizarre Bushwick, they’re keeping an open mind and would consider events like drag shows or women-centered performance nights, with future plans of expanding their hours beyond just dinner and brunch. “We just want to do something that makes sense for the space,” she says.

Concrete is located at 906 Broadway at Stockton Street; open 5 pm to 11 pm, with brunch from 11 am to 5 pm on Saturday and Sunday.