FOR SOME CROWN HEIGHTS RESIDENTS, Italfari is a good place to get a fruit smoothie, a glass of freshly squeezed carrot juice, or a plate of soy duck. This Rastafarian-run vegan eatery has been around for two years, and it does a brisk business from the early morning when it opens for breakfast until it closes its doors in the evening.
But for others, Italfari is a kind of shrine—some of its customers seek out its healing powers like cripples flocked to Lourdes.
“I’ve been coming here for a couple of months,” said Minister Bertram Maxwell of the Miracle Development International Ministry as he waited for his lunch. “It’s changed my diet. I was getting sick…. It stabilized my blood pressure.”
On the wall at Italfari are signs with the names of common ailments—bad breath, canker sores, arthritis, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and so on. Underneath each of these ailments is a prescribed remedy. For a migraine headache, one should drink “Brain Juice,” a concoction consisting of fresh carrots, oranges, and ginkgo. Other juice blends include the “Blues Blaster” and the “Immune Booster,” along with more than a dozen others.
“I’ve seen people come in here and stand for hours looking at the signs,” said Italfari’s Trinidadian owner Jarvis Hall, who was sporting a red-yellow-and-green tie-dye emblazoned with the image of pan-Africanist icon Marcus Garvey when The Eater dropped by his Utica Avenue storefront.
Because it is vegan, all of Italfari’s dishes are made without any meat, eggs, fish, or dairy products. But within these limitations, Hall does a remarkable job of creating a reasonable (and, in many cases, downright delicious) reproduction of everyone’s favorite meaty dishes.
In a glass case behind the counter are golden Jamaican patties—items most restaurants in this West Indian neighborhood have in their windows. But while most of its neighbors stuff their patties with beef or chicken, Italfari offers veggie patties, soy patties, and fake “fish” patties. The veggie patties are crusty and filled with vegetables cooked and seasoned to perfection.
Toward the back of the narrow restaurant (Italfari is really a take-out café—there is no place for customers to sit) are steam trays filled with rice and beans, lo mein, chickpea-and-potato curry, collard greens, soy “eggs,” and other assorted goodies. For “fish” lovers, Hall occasionally makes “salmon,” which is definitely worth a try.
One of Italfari’s best dishes is the citrus ribs—chunks of soy cooked in a sweet sauce with red and green peppers and onions. The Eater defies anyone to tell him they taste any different than moo shu pork.
Hall came to the United States from Trinidad about 10 years ago and started his own vegetarian catering company. And while his food is undeniably delicious, Hall didn’t need any fancy culinary-school training. “I taught myself through reading,” Hall said, “—Laila Africa’s Holistic Health.”
Every aspect of the restaurant—from its menu to its décor—is influenced by the owner’s Rastafarianism, a Caribbean blend of Pan-Africanism, power-to-the-people politics, and Judeo-Christian and African spiritual traditions. On the walls of Italfari are pictures of Garvey, Che Guevara, and the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, considered by many Rastafarians to be the messiah. Even the restaurant’s name, Hall said, can be loosely translated from Rasta-speak as “vegetarian food for me.”
“Rasta is the clean way of life. We believe flesh, the eating of flesh, is wrong—anything that walks, talks, runs…,” Hall said. “It’s not a matter of think. We know flesh is no good.”
Italfari, 313 Utica Ave., Crown Heights (3 or 4 to Utica), 718-774-7720, smoothies $2.50-$5.45, dishes $4-$8.
Max Gross is a frequent contributor to the New York Post and the Forward.
David’s Brisket House
David’s Brisket House sounds like the sort of establishment you’d expect to be run by someone sporting a long beard and yarmulke. But on its wall you’ll find a green sign praising Allah, on the menu are shrimp salad and crabmeat, and neither the owner nor the wait-staff is Jewish. But the brisket is as good as anything that your bubbe made for you. This Bed-Stuy breakfast-and-lunch spot also offers the most unhealthy breakfast ever conceived by man: generous chunks of fatty brisket, eggs, and grits (topped with a pat of butter)—all for $5. But if you save up your calories, it is well worth it. For lunch there are brisket sandwiches, corned beef sandwiches, meatloaf, and many more artery-hardening treats. For dessert the lemon meringue pie is a delicious choice. 533 Nostrand Ave., Bedford-Stuyvesant (A or C to Nostrand), 718-783-6109, breakfast specials $2-$5, platters $4.75-$11.
Michael Ayoub, the half-Italian, half-Syrian chef behind Park Slope’s Cucina, long nursed dreams of opening his own Neapolitan pizza joint, and late last year he got his wish. And—no surprise—Ayoub pulled it off well. His wood-fired brick-oven Williamsburg pizzeria is stocked with some of the freshest toppings one can find. Some of his pizzas are classics, like the margherita or the quattro fromaggi—with gorgonzola, ricotta, fontina, and mozzarella. Others are Ayoub’s creation, like the palate e salsiccio—fennel sausage, potato, fontina cheese, and cherry tomatoes. Hats off to Ayoub! Where else can you get pistachios, figs, and white truffle oil on your pizza? 187 Bedford Ave., Williamsburg (L to Bedford), 718-384-6004, small pizzas $8, large pizzas $16.
Bluefish has always suffered from a reputation of being the “fishiest” of all marine life. Even when it’s fresh, many people complain that it tastes peculiar. Tiebou jeun—a West African dish consisting of stuffed baked bluefish, rice, and vegetables—is the specialty at Joloff Restaurant, and this Clinton Hill Senegalese eatery shows just how tasty this under-appreciated sea creature can be. In addition to a number of different kinds of fish, Joloff serves up meat dishes like the yassa ganar, lusciously tender lemon chicken smothered in onions, and several vegetarian options, such as the very unique-tasting—and I mean that in the best sense—tofu curry. 930 Fulton St., Clinton Hill (C to Clinton-Washington), 718-636-4011, entrees $7.25-$10.
Okay, we all know that Bay Ridge is far. Even for Brooklynites it’s a schlep. But those who persevere will find a rich reward waiting for them at the second-to-last stop on the R train. Karam has the best shawarma (the Middle Eastern equivalent of a burrito) in the city—period. And for those who like the other delicacies of the Middle East, Karam’s menu also features mouth-watering chicken livers, kafta mechwi (a lamb and beef combo), a dozen grape leaves for $4, and eggplant and tabouleh salads aplenty. 8519 4th Ave., Bay Ridge (R to 86th Street), 718-745-5227, sandwiches $4, platters $11.
Randazzo’s Clam Bar
The prices at Randazzo’s Clam Bar are deceptively high. One might glance at the menu, see the plate of pasta for $15 and gasp, “This isn’t Manhattan, you know!” Calm down. A plate of pasta with spicy tomato lobster sauce at Randazzo’s will feed you and your companion. And, even if it didn’t, it would still be worth every dollar. The seafood at Randazzo’s is superb—which is why Randazzo’s is the most famous of the line of seafood joints lining Emmons Avenue overlooking Sheepshead Bay. True, you will gain at least a pound or two from the heaping portions of fried clams, fried shrimp or fried calamari, but non-dieters will leave extremely happy. 2017 Emmons Ave., Sheepshead Bay (B or Q to Sheepshead Bay), 718-615-0010, entrees start at $6.95.
In Sunset Park, one can find some of the finest—and some of the seediest—Mexican restaurants in the city. Rico’s Tacos is one of the best. The Suadero—beef and tripe—soft taco is spicy, simple, and worth every penny. (It sells for a whopping two bucks.) The tostadas consist of crispy shells with chunks of chicken, steak, or fried pork underneath a mountain of cheese and salad. Rico’s also offers Mexican sandwiches and shakes, as well as barbecued goat for the truly adventurous. At Rico’s, one can eat like a king on the budget of a pauper. 505 51st St., Sunset Park (R to 53rd Street), 718-633-4816, soft tacos $1-$2.50, burritos $6.
Before Harold and Kumar were even born, White Castle hamburgers had a special place in the hearts of junk food connoisseurs everywhere. It is a great feeling to pop four or five White Castle mini-burgers, chased by fries and a soda. But the White Castle of yore has changed. Today, White Castle doesn’t taste much different from McDonald’s or Burger King. To get a good mini-burger—one that tastes like a real burger—your best bet is to make it over to Schnack, a Carroll Gardens snack café that serves fresh-cut fries, Swojska sausages, Thai turkey fingers, and hamburgers the size of silver dollars. Schnack offers a “super combo” that consists of four of these mini-burgers topped with bacon, cheese, lettuce, and tomato; fries; and a beer for $8.50, and—sorry sentimental hamburger junkies—it puts White Castle to shame. 122 Union St., Carroll Gardens (F or G to Carroll), 718-855-2879, single burgers $1, combos $4-$8.25.
When you’re sick of waiting around for a table at Williamsburg’s perpetually crowded Planet Thai, go to the Thai Cafe in Greenpoint for pad thai that is every bit as good and an atmosphere that is not nearly as loud. Squid is a popular item on this menu—squid pad thai, spicy squid salad, and a huge heap of golden fried calamari are served in generous portions. But the restaurant also boasts an unusually long list of fabulous specials. The crispy duck with Chinese broccoli and panang curry sauce is divine—and the vegetarian duck looks only a few feathers away from being the real thing. Top it all off with a slice of the delicious flourless chocolate cake. 925 Manhattan Ave., Greenpoint (G to Greenpoint), 718-383-3562, entrees $5.95-$9.95.