“So…that’s how Brucie came to be. Crazy story right!? You weren’t expecting that, were you?” -Zahra Tangorra, Chef/Owner, Brucie
Brucie, the new-kid Italian joint on a stretch of Court Street in Cobble Hill that’s crowded with Italian eateries, is making a splash. The neighborhood’s gone and fallen for Brucie’s ever-changing menu, take-home lasagna program, and the warm, inviting, and somehow exciting vibe.
Zahra Tangorra, Brucie’s owner and chef, presides over the fun. We met up with Zahra this week to find out what’s behind the magic. Turns out, it just might be a brush with death that sparked the love of life that shines through everything Brucie. Wild story, great food.
So Zahra, what’s the story behind Brucie? How did you come to open this place?
I’m from Northport on the North Shore of Long Island – born n’ bred! My family was mostly Italian. My mom’s mom was from Yugoslavia, but my best food memories are all Italian. When I was little my parents had this really funky, cool specialty food and catering shop called the Lovin’ Oven. They’d entertain me as a toddler by pushing me around in mixing bowls and pretending to knead me like dough.
Some of my earliest memories were of my grandpa cooking at the stove. I always remember him sitting way high up in a big chair eating meatballs and sauce out of the pot while he was cooking all day. He died when I was pretty young, but I remember him so well…doing things like leaning over and starting a conversation by going, “This is what goes in a meatball!”
As I got older, my parents separated, closed the shop and went on to other professions, but they both still always loved to cook. My dad is a fantastic baker. I’d always bake with him. And I’d always cook with my mom. She taught me not to use recipes. She also taught me not to follow rules in general! She said, “We don’t follow recipes in this family!” So even now in the restaurant we use the ‘little bit of this, little bit of that’ method.
My parents were just so creative and fun, and when I was a kid a lot of that creativity and fun went into food.
When I was in my early twenties I was an artist. I was working as a display artist for places like Urban Outfitters and Brooklyn Industries. I always thought my career would continue in art or something related to art. I was showing in a lot of galleries…
What type of art were you doing?
I mainly did graffiti art.
Yeah, I was a graffiti artist.
So were you just doing your art for studio shows and that sort of thing, or were you out on rooftops and in subway tunnels tagging?
Ha ha…let’s just say I was doing a little of everything! But I’ve grown out of that! All my creativity goes into the kitchen now. No more graffiti writing for me. Now it’s all about Brucie!
So what led to the transition from art to cooking?
OK. So I have to warn you that this is where the story gets interesting. When I was 23, I went on tour with a friend of mine who’s a musician – a rapper called Mr. Lif. He’s one of my best friends – we had been friends forever. I was between jobs. He was like, “Hey – you want to come on tour? You can sell merchandise.” I was like, “Yeah! That sounds great!”
So we were on the West Coast. We had driven from San Fransisco to shows in L.A. and San Diego in the tour bus, and it was great. Then on the way from San Diego to Phoenix, near a place out in the desert called El Centro, California, our bus driver fell asleep at the wheel, drove us off a 40-foot cliff, and almost killed us all. I was holding a bottle of Red Stripe when it happened and it broke in my hand, my right hand (and I’m a righty), and let’s just say it was badly injured. It was incredibly lucky that no one was killed.
Oh my god!
Yeah. It was traumatic for a couple of years – I had problems being on buses. But I also felt like I survived through some kind of almost…miracle. I felt a kind of new appreciation for life and for the importance of being kind of warm and heartfelt about everything I do.
After that, I spent a few years bartending and soul searching and travelling the world a bit trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to do something that I loved, and I kept coming back to cooking. I just could never deny that I loved to cook!
Before opening Brucie, I was throwing three dinner parties a week, and they just started getting so big that I was like, “Ahhhh! I need a bigger space!” At first I thought I’d like to just open a shop and make fresh pastas and things like that, but then I found this space, which is way too big for a pasta shop! So I started thinking, “Well, maybe we’ll have a couple of tables and do a couple of menu items each night. We’ll make it really casual…have people order at the register! Have a little market too!” And eventually it turned into Brucie!
That’s just how it goes sometimes with things like this – you start with one idea, and it changes and changes and you just keep going with it – and we ended up with a restaurant and I just love it!
Everything we do here is extremely heartfelt. Everything we do comes from a very earnest and a very loving place. It’s very personal for me. I just felt like it was a miracle that I survived that accident and I hope some of the good feeling I took from that rubs off on what we do here and on the people who come in. And I do think that when a lot of people come in and eat here, they feel a little of that sense of warmth.
So…that’s how Brucie came to be. Crazy story right!? You weren’t expecting that, were you?
I have to say that is one of the most amazing stories I’ve ever heard. OK. Wow. We could just wrap it up right there, but I guess we should talk about the food. ‘Cuz it’s so good.
Well, we change our menu every day. We keep it manageable by having a small menu.
Generally we have about 5-6 pastas. Two of those we have every day: the Tagliatelle which people really love – it has fried Brussels sprouts, Burrata cheese and tomato butter. And we have our spaghetti and meatballs on the menu each night. Beyond that, we usually do a few small plates, a meat entrée, a fish entrée, a vegetarian entrée…I’m obviously not a vegetarian, but I just love vegetables, so we have a lot of vegetarian dishes. And we have two or three desserts each night, which I also make. I’m a very busy girl!
The food we make is nontraditional even when it’s traditional, if that makes any sense. Like our spaghetti and meatballs. Coming from an Italian-American family, I couldn’t imagine not having spaghetti and meatballs on our menu…who doesn’t love spaghetti and meatballs!? To put our own twist on it, we put lemon zest in our meatballs. That was one of my grandpa’s tricks. So that’s a really traditional dish, but we make it with the most beautiful grass-fed meat from this wonderful small farm that does everything organically and naturally, and we add a little twist with the lemon zest and people say, “Wow. This is great. I’ve never really tasted it like this before!”
Another example would be last night – we had a spaghetti with octopus, breadcrumbs and mint. Classic flavors of southern Italy and Sicily. We just love to take classic flavors and mix them up and give them a twist. Lots of chefs do that, of course – we just try to make good food and have fun here! We do something new and fun every night.
It must take a lot of creativity to come up with a new menu every night. How do you do it? What inspires the dishes you come up with every night?
I’m really inspired by ingredients. Whatever looks good, looks fresh, looks exciting each week – we’ll find a way to use.
We work with some amazing suppliers. One is Lancaster Farm Fresh – a farmers’ co-op based in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. We use Nectar Hills Farm for a lot of our meat. We have a wonderful distributor for amazing imported Italian ingredients. We’ve got a great fish guy…
So each week we look at what each of our distributors has, and we think about what we could do with whatever sounds great. I’ll talk to my fish guy about what he’s got and he’ll say, “We have beautiful octopus that just came in!” or some great Long Island Fluke. I’ll talk to my Italian people and they’ll say, “We have incredible anchovies from Sicily this week,” and we’ll talk to Lancaster Farm Fresh and they’ll tell us what great produce they have, and we figure it all out based around the best sounding ingredients.
We make a lot of things in-house too. We make goat milk ricotta and regular ricotta. We make our own crème fraiche and yogurt. We make our own Burrata, mozzarella, lots of pickly things…
I have a serious commitment to using natural ingredients. I won’t eat anything that has chemicals on it or in it and I won’t serve anything in my restaurant that I wouldn’t eat. Everything we use is totally natural, chemically free, and from small farms or producers. Not everything is certified organic – there are a lot of small farms that can’t afford to get certified but who use totally organic and natural practices to produce awesome stuff, and that’s the kind of thing we look for.
It’s interesting…a lot of people still really don’t care about how the food is produced, but a lot of people do. The people who don’t care…you never want to preach to anyone, especially when they’re just trying to enjoy a meal…but they’ll say, “Wow, this is soo good.” And I’ll be like, “That’s because it’s the best tasting, most beautiful all natural meat…or vegetables!” I’ll just try to sneak it in that way!
So the creative process here is really about doing new things and using whatever awesome stuff we have available to us each week. I work with Frank, my sous-chef, to build ideas, to think about what we’re going to do. We might say, “You know, let’s do Tuscan food next week!” Other weeks it’ll be a mix of whatever we want. We just can’t imagine doing it any other way. It has to be creative and fun. And that’s how we are here – we’re constantly creating. It’s not just about getting through today, it’s about, “I can’t wait ‘til tomorrow so we can make something new!” And coming up with dishes and thinking, “Oh my god the customers are going to love this! We have such a great menu today!”
I would be so bored as a chef if I had to come in every day and make the same thing over and over!
Tell me about Brucie’s lasagna program. I love the idea.
Well, it’s a lot of fun. It kind of started off with us just wanting to have a really homey and friendly approach. Since it’s such a great neighborhood here, I thought it would be cool to have people come in, bring their own pan, leave it here, and come back the next day for a great lasagna to take home. My parents were caterers, so I’ve always felt comfortable cooking on a large scale and doing takeout for people…But with the lasagna you can just bring your pan in one day and pick it up the next. We do a Swiss chard and eggplant, a housemade ricotta, a classic meatless which has our housemade ricotta, housemade mozzarella and tomato sauce. We have a cremini mushroom and goat cheese, and we do specials.
During the winter we did roast pork and butternut squash…it’s cool. People really like it a lot. It’s great for a party or if you’re tired and don’t feel like cooking…
And tell us about the market you’ve got set up up front. What do you carry?
We have lots of things – our fresh pasta. Frozen to-go dinners – our lasagnas, raviolis, tortellinis.
A lot of times when we make something for the restaurant for dinner we take some of it and freeze it for the market – things like clam sauce or tomato sauce. It’s nice to offer that service to people who can’t necessarily come in every night.
Other than that we have a lot of great specialty products. Imported Italian stuff. Local things like P&H Soda Co.’s sodas and syrups, Blue Marble Ice Cream, People’s Pops… We have a lot of fresh all natural-vegetables from Lancaster Fresh and their amazing fresh eggs – their eggs are like the world’s most delicious eggs! We also have their smoked cheese, goat’s Parmesan, some of their canned and pickled things…
Whatever we order for the restaurant, we’ll order extra for the market. We love the market. We want to keep making it bigger and more interesting.
You mentioned that you’d never worked in a restaurant before opening Brucie. It must be an adventure. How’s it all going?
It’s been awesome. People seem to really like the place. I never get used to it. People will come in here and eat and give me a hug when they leave! It’s just been so nice! I can’t get over it! People come back over and over and they tell us they come back because it’s special. And we try to make it special for them, so that makes us really happy. And if I may say so, the food is really good!
Would you say you’re living the dream?
I’m living A dream. I don’t know if this was THE dream, but it’s definitely A dream. It’s unbelievably hard work, but it’s totally wonderful. During the day I’m usually a little crazed – running around cooking, dealing with little crises, things breaking…all that. But as soon as service starts and people start coming in and enjoying the food it’s all worth it. Even though we’re just a little restaurant, it feels really cool to affect people in some way. Even if it’s just through food.
Well what better way than that?
You know, my mom has a client who told her that he had seen me on Martha Stewart a few months ago, and that it inspired him to start his own business. And that totally made me shed a tear! Things like that just make it all worth it. All the unbelievable hours and hard work…to be able to inspire one other person to pursue something they love to do makes it all worth it!
I just love having this place, and meeting the wonderful people who come in, sharing our food with them. It’s a lot of hard work but it’s fun and at the end of the day it’s really gratifying.
Brucie is located at 234 Court Street (at the corner of Baltic) in Cobble Hill.
For more on Brucie, or to check their daily menu, check out their website.