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March 5, 2021
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Food + Drink

Beg Zahra for PorkBelly Miracles

By Lisa M. Collins
Zahra Tangorra's new Italian is a hit on Court St.
Photo by Joshua Kristal

May 2013.

Homemade pastas, candle-lit, hipster charm and an eclectic menu of modernist twists on Italian classics pack in the tables every night at Brucie’s. If you haven’t been, you should go, as owner Zahra Tangorra is one of the most talented chefs in this neighborhood. The dinner atmosphere is perfect for a date night.

Just this week I selfishly asked Tangorra to make me one of her specialties — pork belly. It wasn’t on the menu, but she whipped one up, and — well let’s just say it’s a mouthful of heaven that exhibits Tangorra’s stregnths: juxtaposing textures of soft and crisp, flavors of sweet and sour, elements of creaminess and crunch. In this iteration, the pork belly came out as it often does, very crisp on the outside, very moist in the interior, with a savory spice crusted around. The darling was dressed with yogurt, fresh chopped chives and wonderfully nutty roasted/fried chickpeas. To die for.

March 2011.

There’s a neophyte chef, an eccentric young red head with bright red lipstick and crazy hair, running a new style of Italian restaurant on Court Street, near the heart of old Italian Brooklyn.

Her name is Zahra Tangorra. The restaurant is Brucie. With it Tangorra has created a hip, fresh take on the old-school red sauce joints and fine Italian cooking she grew up with.

She designed the restaurant, cooks, manages and is the sole investor. All the recipes—house made pastas and mozzarella, spaghetti and lemon-infused meatballs, meat and fish and the house signature dish: tagliatelle noodles with fresh corn, creamy burrata cheese and charred brussel sprouts with tomato butter–are hers. She even compiles playlists, soundtracks of indie rock to play through the night. She grew up in the small town of Northport, L.I., lives in Ft. Greene, and her restaurant is a welcome taste of Williamsburg in South Brooklyn.

“I’m pretty bossy, so it works out. It’s all mine,” Tangorra says.

Tangorra is 26. The restaurant is named after her and her boyfriend’s dog, Burrito, and Burrito’s canine pal, Lucy. She gives much credit to her boyfriend Dan and her co-chef Frank Justus for the early success of the restaurant.

Growing up on Long Island with her extended Italian family, Tangorra learned to cook at an early age. Her parents owned a specialty food shop, “The Loving Oven,” which inspired her to include a specialty Italian grocery at Brucie, with some of the best pastas and ingredients available. She sells fine dried pastas and her own house-made pasta, charcuterie meats (from Salumeria Biellese in Chelsea) and cheeses, capers and olives, white truffle oil, organic dark brown sugar, Polenta, parchment-baking paper, cooking twine — everything you need to make a nice meal at home.

Tangorra, who says her second passion to cooking is design, went all-out on decorating to create a sweet, modern-retro dining space, featuring a back room lined with striped cream and navy wallpaper, large square tables and white benches.

Before Brucie, Tangorra was a display artist for Urban Outfitters and Brooklyn Industries. She looks to Design*Sponge for inspiration, and picked up antiques and salvaged items in the Berkshires and at a salvage yard next to Lowe’s in Gowanus.

“In Brooklyn, we are in the age of the beautiful restaurant,” Tangorra said. “I wanted to make the place stick out.”

Brucie has enjoyed a strong showing out of the gate. On a recent Friday night at 8 p.m., the tables were filled and diners poured in from the street, crowding in front to wait. On a Saturday in October, only a month after she opened, Brucie saw two rushes, at around 5 and again in the evening. The kitchen ran out of its cod special.

From the sidewalk, Brucie doesn’t look like much. You can see a refrigerated case holding dairy, and it might throw you off. Inside, lit with romantic old-fashioned glass lights and candles, there’s a long communal table, a few smaller tables, and metal swivel chairs at a handmade copper bar, where you can watch Tangorra’s team of young cooks make fresh pasta and mozzarella. There aren’t many standard two-seat and four-seat tables.

Earlier this year, Tangorra had never been in a restaurant kitchen, and she did not attend culinary school. But she loved to throw big dinner parties and prepare the food that she grew up with. Her dinner parties got bigger until there was no more room around the table. She needed more space.

Tangorra says she found the location for Brucie “randomly,” on Craig’s List.

She said people were fighting tooth and nail for the rental. “It was too good to pass up,” she said.

The food at Brucie is hearty and satisfying. The charred vegetables that turn up on many dishes are exceptional.

Tangorra says she’s dedicated to fresh, local, seasonal, sustainable. Meats and dairy come from area farms, veggies from farmer’s markets. The bread comes from Caputo’s in Carroll Gardens. The fresh ingredients make a difference.

In the tagliatelle dish, it’s the sweet pop of the corn kernels that add zing to the dish.

“We went to the farmer’s markets and stockpiled all the corn in New York,” she says. The freezers are filled with it.

“I take painstaking efforts to make sure all the food is locally sourced and as seasonal as possible. For instance our lemons, we make sure they are domestic and come on a train instead of a truck.”

The vibe is fun and casual, and that’s on purpose.

“We don’t take ourselves too seriously. We just want to make something that people say, “Yum, this is good,” Tangorra says. “I love the ‘yum’ face.

“We are a crew that doesn’t have a ton of experience. Everything we do definitely is from the heart.”

Growing up with Red Sauce

Tangorra says the Italian food of her youth is in her blood. Her parents are artists and cooks, her grandmother, an interior designer.

“They were fabulous cooks, funky creative people,” Tangorra says. “They used to say they pushed me around in a mixing bowl.”

She has fond memories of her grandfather making marinara sauce, after picking tomatoes from his garden. He made his own pasta.

“My grandpa was really big, with a big pregnant stomach. He’d sit on a high chair by the stove all day. He wouldn’t move, stirring and tasting the sauce all day.”

She wanted to create a place reminiscent of the old-school pasta joints she would go to as a child, like a place called Mr. Sausage that had cold salads, meat, cheeses and Italian wines on the wall.

It’s not been all roses and lollipops for Tangorra. Some time in between her happy upbringing and throwing dinner parties in Ft. Greene, Tangorra was touring with a band, riding in a bus out West. Around Arizona, the bus driver fell asleep and drove off a cliff. Nobody was killed or seriously injured. Tangorra’s hand was severed. She can use it but it was severely impaired. She received a settlement.

She used the money to open Brucie.

“I felt like I had to do something with [the money]. I feel so happy to be alive, I want to pay that karma forward.”

At Brucie, “we try to make people feel happy.”

Menu sampling: Chicken Parm Hero, $10; Tortellini en Brodo (pork belly tortellini in pork broth) $12; Chicken Francaise with Baked Chicory and polenta, $16; Fried Housemade Mozzarella with marinara and radish top pesto, $9; radish and green tomato salad, $3; Lemon Pie, $7 per slice.


234 Court St.

(347) 987-4961


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