Today we stop in at Roebling Tea Room, where chef Dennis Spina, who started cooking here after ditching a previous career spent running a heavy metal record label, has spent the last eight years chasing the dragon when it comes to his food, pushing it ever forward and out, transforming the place in the process from a panini and sandwich joint into a respected spot with an always-evolving menu, and a hangout for many of Williamsburg’s culinary creative elite.
As one ought always to do in a place like this, we just asked Dennis to tell us what to get.
Alright Dennis, what should we have today?
I’ve got three things for you to try. To start, we have raviolo. As far as I know, raviolo means one ravioli. I don’t know whether that’s actually true. We almost always have an appetizer featuring one ravioli on the menu, and we call it a raviolo because we want to.
The raviolo changes all the time. We just do whatever we want to do each night. Today, it’s a raviolo filled with pureed corn, grits, Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, basil and an egg yolk, topped with a shrimp and served in a sauce we call flamingo butter.
So to make it, we separate the egg yolk from the white. Then we roll out the pasta and make a little well for the raviolo, and fill it with the corn, grits, parmesan and all that. We top it off with the whole egg yolk, then fold over the pasta dough and seal it up like a regular ravioli, so when you break into it, the egg yolk runs out right into the flamingo butter sauce.
The flamingo butter sauce is based on a shrimp butter we make here. We make up stupid names for everything – we just can’t help it. We also take smoked fish bones and pork bones and make a stock. We reduce that stock and get it real thick, then we add the shrimp butter to it. When you cut into the raviolo and that egg yolk runs into the sauce, it all just becomes super-luxurious and out-of-this-world delicious.
The shrimp are head-on shrimp from North Carolina. They’re the best shrimp we’ve had in a long, long time. They’ve got flavor kind of like rock shrimp – they’re a little sweeter than most varieties. We slice the shrimp in half so it cooks faster – that keeps it more tender. We poach it in the shrimp butter and the smoked fish and pork stock, and serve it on top of the raviolo.
Then we deep fry some Brussles sprouts and toss them with salt and pepper and a little bit of fish sauce and sprinkle those over the raviolo. We use a Sicilian fish sauce. It’s just anchovies and salt, crushed on a press to squeeze all the juice out. I know it sounds kind of gross, but it’s really good stuff.
So it’s not a light dish by any means. There’s nothing subtle here. There’s no acid to cut through the rich, savory stuff going on. Nothing complex. It’s all one note. But it’s a good note. I think. [laughter.]
The next dish is another stupid thing that we do here all the time. It’s called bagna cauda. Bagna cauda is a northern Italian sauce, or a dip actually, made with olive oil, garlic and anchovy. They dip vegetables or bread in it. Traditionally, it’s a warm, smooth dip. You dissolve the garlic and anchovies in cream and olive oil. When we started making it here, we made it that way, and we put it on everything.
It has no resemblance to the traditional thing anymore. The ingredients are all there, but we don’t melt or dissolve anything. You can see the garlic. The anchovies aren’t melted into the sauce, they’re right there in your face.
To make it, we get everything going in a pan – we start with butter, olive oil, parsley and garlic and we make a nice brown butter. Then we pan fry these white anchovies from Spain. Most of the time we use whitebait or sprats. Any fresh little ocean fish will do.
After we pan fry the fish, we throw them into the foaming brown butter. Then we take stracciatella di bufala, which is a stringy form of Italian bufala mozzarella. It’s super creamy and sweet with a touch of sourness. We start with that on the plate, then we pour the olive oil brown butter and garlic and anchovies right over the cheese. We finish it with parsley and a little bit of lemon juice to cut through the richness, and a little sea salt on top.
We serve it with a piadina, which is the Italian version of a tortilla. It looks cool because I throw a little red wine in with the dough.
So you have that creamy, delicate, sweet bufala mozzarella, the briny, crispy fried anchovy, and then the garlicky olive oil brown butter over the top just kind of enriches everything.
Actually, I first encountered a version of this dish years ago at Diner. Caroline Fidanza was the original chef there. She’s a co-owner of Saltie now, which is just down the street. She used to do a bagna cauda over fresh mozzarella at Diner and I just stole it from her. The way I do it is different than the way she did it, but this dish is definitely an act of theft. [laughter.]
And what do we have here for the final dish?
This is our chicken dish. It’s basically half a chicken, done a couple of different ways. We take the dark meat off the leg and we grind it a bunch of times through a meat grinder to a sausage-like texture. We add fennel and garlic for that classic Italian sausage kind of flavor. And then we make little meatballs out of it and roast them in the pan to get a nice brown on them.
Then we take the white meat of the chicken breast and we roast it with a ton of lavender, but not so much lavender that it tastes soapy. We use fresh French lavender, which is a lot milder than the dried stuff. The breast is pan roasted too to give it a nice sear.
We use something called a Giannone chicken, from Quebec. They’re a fancy breed. They’re not the fanciest anymore. Everything just keeps getting fancier, you know. [laughter.] They’re organic and all that stuff. Really nice meat.
The chicken is always there in this dish, but everything around the chicken changes seasonally. We use whatever we find that’s available and good. Whatever’s good.
Today we’ve got braised cabbage and little balls of butternut squash. We braise off the cabbage in pork stock and a sweeter white wine, like a Riesling. After a few hours the cabbage kind of gives it all up and changes from cabbage into something else entirely, which is what we like.
Then we make a sauce with a vinegar made from a wine from the Jura region of France. I love the wines from there. They’re slightly oxidized, which gives them some really unusual and complex nutty, yeasty, oaky flavors. They’re made with chardonnay grapes. I love those wines but we can’t sell them! No one buys them. When they do, they always send them back because they think there’s something wrong with them, but there’s not. It’s how they’re made to be.
So since I can’t sell them, I had to find another way to use them, and we use vinegar made from the wine for this sauce. It’s a pan sauce that deglazes the pan we use to roast the chicken meatballs and breast meat. It picks up all the caramelized bits from the pan – everything from bits of lavender to the drippings from the meat and all that good stuff. The tang of the vinegar works nicely with all the savory stuff from the pan, and with the meaty, juicy, roasted chicken. The lavender lightens it up nicely too.
We finish the plate with these little balls of butternut squash. They’re tossed in lemon juice to give you another little angle of acid to cut through the richness of the chicken.
So Dennis, where are you from? How did you end up doing all this, here?
I’m from New Jersey. Western New Jersey, right near Pennsylvania, about an hour and a half away. I’m totally Jersey. Through and through.
I’ve always liked cooking. My grandmother was Italian, so there was always a lot of good food at her house when I was growing up. But I don’t have any kind of seminal food memories from my childhood or anything. There was never any big moment where I was struck by the realization that all I wanted to do was cook. I didn’t have anything like that at all. Never.
I had a bunch of food jobs when I was younger. I was a short order cook. I made bagels. Stuff like that, just for money. But I stopped doing it for a long time. I did music stuff with a buddy of mine for a while. Started a heavy metal record label that got pretty big. Then it got old. I wanted to do something else.
A friend of mine opened this restaurant, and he hired me as a line cook. Eventually he quit this place to open Pies and Thighs. When he was leaving to do the new place he was like, “Hey, you want to take this over?” I said, “Yes.” It was a much different operation back then. It was a café with a couple of panini presses and salads.
How did that become this? How’d you go from a couple of panini presses to a constantly changing menu?
I have no idea. It just kept growing and growing. I think it’s still growing, a little bit, every day. I guess things really changed when we started doing dinner specials. We started doing one special a night, and then more and more, and now the menu just changes constantly.
You know, now that I think about it I guess I actually did have an, “Oh shit!” moment when it came to food. It just wasn’t when I was a kid. It was the first time I went to Diner for dinner when Caroline was cooking there. I just kept thinking, “Holy shit!” the whole time I was there. Everything was kind of cool there, you know? The food was cool, which is sort of a strange way to describe food, but that’s what it was. It wasn’t stuffy or precious. It was very relaxed and casual, and it was delicious in a way I’d never experienced before. Fucking incredibly good.
Caroline just has a way with food that I don’t think anybody else has, or has ever had, or will have, really. And it’s really special. It’s a special thing. The freshness of ingredients. The quality. The care. All done in a way that’s so relaxed and friendly and like, cool. She started this whole thing that’s everywhere now. I feel really fortunate to live in the neighborhood where she’s been cooking for the last ten years.
Basically, things started changing here at Roebling when I just started ripping off Caroline Fidanza. To be honest, that’s all I’ve been doing for the last eight years of my life. I just rip her off in every way I possibly can. I started stealing from her when she was at Diner. Now I steal what she does at Saltie. I have no shame about that. Sure, I have my own point of view on things, but I proudly steal from Caroline and always will. [laughter.] I am totally serious too.
Roebling Tea Room is located at 143 Roebling Street, at Metropolitan, in Williamsburg.
Photography by Morgan Ione Yeager. All rights reserved.