Someday, when Brooklyn becomes the next Times Square, double decker tour buses will surf the colorful streets of Bushwick and megaphone-clad guides, charged with celebrating that neighborhood's rich culture of graffiti, fixed-gear bikes, and potholes, will explain to culinary neophytes what Roberta's is — no easy task. The correct answer, of course, is that Roberta's is a hyper-local vegetable-heavy restaurant, a fatty charcuterie haven, a bonkers pizzeria, a tent-covered tiki bar that leads to a two Michelin-starred chef’s counter (Blanca), and a loving home for an independent radio station (Heritage) that's stuffed into a shipping container. Got all that? Well, now there’s a separate takeout venue on the Roberta's campus. It sells $2 bottles of Poland Spring water, $4 cans of Budweiser, $8 tubes of green juice, Italian hoagies, French pastries, American chocolate chip cookies, New York everything bagels, bags of Native Harvest Wild Rice, salt tins, anchovy tins, white balsamic vinegar, dried pastas, two types of cold brew ice coffee, one of which will transform you into a Russian attack hovercraft, a mozzarella pie whose name is Chesus Christ, custom tank tops, hot sauce, chile oil, chile-spiked peanut butter, polenta porridge bread, one of the city’s finest bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches, and $12 copies of a large format variety paper called Blaaah.
There's a lot to make sense of here at Roberta's Bakery, as the space is formally called. The head-turning breakfast, legit deli sandwiches, and upscale provisions suggest that the chefs are jonesing to elevate the late-night bodega, one of the last frontiers of affordable, unrefined gastronomy. And with Bitburger tallboys available for take away at the bakery, all you’re really missing are the cigarettes, the overpriced toilet paper, the shady ATMs, and the condoms.
Then again, a bodega doesn’t typically serve brick-oven pizza, garlic knots, or sea salted sticky buns ($3) that could command a place at one of the Manhattan's most ambitious restaurants. And a bodega doesn’t sell t-shirts of skeletons eating pizza. So let’s refine the argument: Roberta’s Bakery, while possessing some of the laudable characteristics of an after-hours deli — it’s open until midnight — or a gourmet market — there are thinly sliced Quercia cold cuts in the refrigerator section — boasts an arbitrary eclecticism that's more akin to a highway rest stop, a place where bike messengers and tourists alike can fuel up on high calorie fare (or souvenirs) before returning to the mean streets of New York. I mean this all as a compliment, as rest stops, typically collections of trinket shops, Roy Rogers outlets, and Cinnabons, rank with movie theaters and hospital cafeterias as institutions most in need of a culinary overhaul.
That all said, here’s everything you need to know about the sprawling offerings at the year-old takeout space, which shows off the excellent work of chef Carlo Mirarchi, sous chef Rachael Marie and head baker Nina Subhas.
The Egg Sandwich Is King
During the early hours, expect patrons donning baseball caps, cyclists who eat while wearing their helmets, and tattooed folks ordering the $6 bacon, egg, and cheese croissanwich. House-cured bacon, cut as thickly as at Peter Luger, extends out from the length of the pastry, mimicking an oversized frankfurter on a split top bun. Make no mistake, this isn't a traditional BEC, with a moderate amount of meat seasoning the other, more abundantly portioned ingredients. This is a swine belly sandwich at its core; it only happens to be garnished with a single egg, a single slice of American cheese. And that belly meat is glorious. Some bites are funky like guanciale, other bites are clean and porky, and still others pack a fat so silky it's like the carnivorous equivalent of a campfire marshmallow. The croissant provides extra grease and the yolk, ooze. Rating: A+.
This Is How You Avoid The Roberta's Death Queue
Here's some ambiance for you: sidewalk seating overlooks the parking lot for a fleet of Boar's Head tractor trailers, while the inside eating area, a stand-up only table garnished with napkins and red pepper flakes, affords gorgeous views of a three-eyed monster painted on the east wall. No matter, this lightly-populated space is one of the best ways to avoid the insane dining room wait, which can stretch to two hours during prime times. Our "Dad Bod" pizza (pastrami, parmesan, pickle juice, garlic) was ready in just over ten minutes on a Saturday night. Equally important is that the line for the restroom here is oodles shorter than at Roberta's proper.
Getting takeout pizza is one of the best ways to avoid the epic dining room wait, which can stretch to two hours during prime times.
Garlic Knots and Pizza Bites Are the New Cronuts
Slice joint regulars know that few edibles smell as lovely yet taste as mediocre as a garlic knot; the leaden twists of dough sit in your stomach for hours. The Roberta's analogue ($5 for three) is epically more studied, with a thin schmear of garlic confit coating the parsley butter-laced dough. It's baked and finished with a dusting of pecorino, imparting the pastries with the crunchy exterior of a savory palmier. Equally stunning are the brand new pizza bites ($5), gnocchi-sized knobs of undercooked dough (imagine the texture of a zeppole), stuffed with pepperoni and fresh mozzarella. They're tongue-scorching hot, which is why you dunk them into a cool ramekin of marinara. They are Totino's pizza rolls, improved.
Take Home Anything With the Word Butter In the Name
That means order the house-made cow's milk butter, cut with cultured yogurt, spiked with crunchy flakes of salt, and rolled up like a sausage; when served cold it's possible, though not advisable, to eat the sweet-tangy dairy product like a Slim Jim. Or try the coffee-and-chile infused peanut butter, a succulent paste that's soft enough to double as dip.
The Italian Combo Has Few Equals
The central flaw to most hoagies is the disproportionate ratio of sodium-saturated deli meat to bread. Roberta's solves that problem by going light on the prosciutto, mortadella, and spicy sopressatta, and by adding a slab of milky straciatella to the "open" side of the semolina hero, an unexpected touch that keeps the salt in check. The kitchen then tosses in roasted red peppers for sweetness, banana peppers for tartness, and a hint of parmesan for umami-clad sharpness. For a touch more heat, go ahead and drizzle on some hot sauce ($8), a blend of fermented fresno chiles whose flavors evoke a sun-drenched Mediterranean piperade on crack. Other sandwiches worth ordering: The tomato-free meatball sub, which serves as proof that this working class luxury is just as compelling with just fresh mozz and basil, as well as the squash and tahini sandwich, the crunchy vegetables acting as a textural foil to the soft bread. And as the weather turns colder, keep an eye out for the pastrami sandwich, which ranks with 2nd Ave Deli's as one of the city's finest versions of that staple.
The Caffeine Situation Is Baller
In our Blue Bottle and Intelligentsia-obsessed country, Roberta's merits outlier status for maintaining a tea program on par with its coffee offerings, balancing traditional Earl Grey, assam, and genmaicha selections with varieties more commonly found in high-end restaurants, like pearl jasmine. As for coffee, the beans are Stumptown, with two cold brews on tap, regular and nitro-infused; this novice "drinker" prefers the latter, a violent-sounding beverage whose Guinness-like creaminess and gentle dark chocolate sweetness goes down just a bit more easily than traditional iced-coffee.
One More Thing....
For a restaurant that has regularly commanded long waits (and consistently garnered critical acclaim) since its 2008 debut, Roberta’s expansion has been decidedly modest. That’s all the more true when compared with New York-based peers like Momofuku, founded in 2004, and Major Food, born in 2009, both of which have spread across the country (and the globe) in the years since. The Roberta’s phenomenon, for now, is mostly confined to Bushwick, with the exception of a seasonal burger and breakfast burrito outpost on Rockaway Beach, as well as a roving series of pizza ovens that draw proper lines when they appear at outdoor food courts in Midtown Manhattan. And while one could make a compelling argument that any of the Roberta’s experiences are worthy of worldwide replication, New York already has many great restaurants and tasting menu joints. But finding a great can of anchovies, or a high-end pizza, or a top-tier sandwich at 11:50pm on a Tuesday is decidedly more difficult. And to find that all in the same place is nearly impossible. That's why Roberta's Bakery deserves to become our next Shake Shake or Parm. It deserves to expand.