Directions scribbled on the back of a napkin or coaster usually lead you to unforgettable locations.
It was no different on this Sunday afternoon. As I sat and enjoyed a very good East Coast brew in a Greenwich Village bar along Manhattan's Lower West Side, I got to talking to some locals about the city, different neighborhoods, and destinations away from the madhouse tourist spots.
"Brooklyn is the new hotspot," they said. Apparently, lots of students have moved out there because rent is less expensive, and with the influx of the younger crowd, the borough has emerged as a hip, trendy place to visit – not just live.
"Union Sq. to 14th St. to L to Morgan. Moore St.” This is all I had, jotted down on the rectangular Lagunitas coaster. I was told to look for a place called “Roberta’s.”
Time to step out of my comfort zone, I thought. I'd visited New York a few times in the past, but never had I ventured outside of Manhattan, so this time I was determined to try something a little different.
I began my short subway journey out to Brooklyn, and enjoyed the entertainment that comes with riding public transportation. One couple stood and argued loud enough for the entire car to hear, as another man walked back and forth, playing an old-fashioned accordion while his young son approached passengers with an empty ball cap for donations.
After a twenty-minute ride, I arrived at the Morgan stop, climbed the flight of stairs up out of the underground and emerged onto a dark, quiet street. The street was lined with what appeared to be empty industrial buildings.
Looking in each direction I noticed a couple of small bars or restaurants, but definitely not the hip, vibrant part of the city I was expecting. Immediately, I found Moore Street, but there was no visible sign of Roberta's.
Just as I was about to ask for directions, I heard a couple in front of me say "Oh good, there's not a line."
A line? A line for what? I asked myself. I stood and stared at the old building that looked to be constructed from cinder blocks. Crammed next to it was a dilapidated old shed with graffiti tagged along the exterior, and above the door was a very simple red sign that read “Roberta's.” That was all. There was nothing indicating that this was even a restaurant. In fact, it looked more like the outside of a chop shop.
Here we go. I opened the door and was greeted by a large red curtain. I've encountered these red curtains before – I have always been pleasantly surprised at what was waiting on the other side.
I pulled it open, and immediately was hit by the smell of fresh-baked pizza. To the left (pictured) was a fire-engine red woodburning pizza oven. Pleasantly lit, Roberta's was filled with long benches and a small wooden bar along the back wall.
I took a seat at the small bar – my preferred spot, as it's best for chatting it up with the barkeep. This goes back to the idea of scribbling down suggestions and recommendations from locals, as opposed to following a strict itinerary of guidebook tips and preplanned explorations.
I ordered a very basic pizza called Rosso, made up of tomato, oregano and garlic. It was very good. The crust was thin and crunchy with a slightly sweet sauce and served straight from the oven. The dishes coming out of the kitchen looked stunning; but I was on a very strict pizza diet that day, so I stuck to it.
As I sat at the bar, sipping a brew and chatting, I learned that this area of Brooklyn is called Bushwick, and was enthralled to learn that all of their ingredients are grown in a garden at the back of the restaurant. Even the mozzarella cheese is produced on site. Talk about freshness! There's also a 24-hour radio station called Hermitage Radio that broadcasts from the restaurant, and was being recorded behind a pane of glass just off the main dining area.
The restaurant was warm, inviting, and had a great buzz of energy. Larger groups sat at the long benches, mingling and clanking glasses of wine.
The pizza arrived fairly quickly and I devoured the entire thing in no time. I spent a little more time talking and soaking up the vibes of this place before it was time to head out. The room was filled to capacity as I paid my tab and said good-bye.
Heading out into the dimly lit streets of Bushwick, I was greeted by a light rain shower. I turned and looked back, and thought to myself that I would never in a million of years have found this place if I would've stuck to a guidebook and ignored the advice of strangers.
Once again, I learned that the best places are the ones a bit off of the beaten path, and that it’s imperative to occasionally step into the unknown. You never know when there’s a gem hiding behind that red curtain.