Sifton Reminisces About Pizzas Past, Looks to Future at BHA Meeting

New York Times National Editor Sam Sifton recalled a rough-and-tumble childhood growing up on Willow Street, learning tricks like heading down Grace Court, which would trick pursuers seeking to “yoke” him into thinking he would be trapped on a dead-end street, then going over the fence and walking above the BQE to safety on Remsen Street. As the Times’ former restaurant critic, he also had memories of Heights food establishments, especially the old Queen Pizzaria on Court Street and Fascati’s, which he said was for him the defining slice. Other places he remembered fondly were China Chili (a favorite of your correspondent when he first moved to the Heights in the mid 1980s), the Promenade Restaurant, Mr. Souvlaki (“no place like it in the world” Sifton thought at age ten) and Capulets, where he said most of his St. Ann’s teachers could be found from about three in the afternoon until midnight.

He said he thought Brooklyn’s entry into the world of haute cuisine began with the opening of Patois on Smith Street, at a time when it was still a decidedly seedy area. This led to the proliferation of fine restaurants there. He sees the same thing happening in other places in the Borough. Asked where he thinks the next Smith Street will be, he said that rents will tell the story. Opening a restaurant is a particularly risky proposition, so reasonable rent is a very important consideration. This would seem to rule out Montague Street, though one audience member pointed out that what she believed would be a first class Spanish restaurant will be opening on Montague between Clinton and Henry.

Asked what he liked least about being a restaurant critic, he said it was the assigning of stars as ratings. “It’s my St. Ann’s background; what are these grades?” Asked why he had given up the position, he said that becoming National Editor at the beginning of an election year was just too exciting a prospect to turn down.

At the meeting’s opening, BHA President Jane McGroarty began by reviewing the past year, noting such accomplishments as the addition of a middle school to P.S. 8, the designation of the Borough Hall Skyscraper Historic District, getting improved pedestrian access at the Atlantic Avenue entrance to Brooklyn Bridge Park, and winning the court cases that preserved the Tobacco Warehouse as parkland. She noted that the effort to get residential parking permits was likely to be a long one. Channel 13 personality and Remsen Street resident Tom Stewart gave community service awards to SUNY Downstate at LICH and to Deputy Inspector Mark DiPaolo, Commander of the 84th Precinct. He also presented awards for restoration excellence to Amy Klein and Jeremy Lechtzin, owners of 58 Hicks Street, and to 177 Columbia Corp., owner of 177-179 Columbia Heights. He also amused the audience with questions about Downton Abbey.

At the discussion at the end of the meeting, there were many questions about traffic issues, including cars running the stop signs at the foot of Montague Street, bicyclists riding on sidewalks and otherwise violating traffic rules, and the possible imposition of a 20 mile per hour speed limit in the Heights. D.I. DiPaolo said that getting cameras to record violations is subject to state approval, but that he would alert his officers to look for violations at the places noted. He said police were being pro-active in trying to educate cyclists about traffic rules, as well as merchants who use bycyclists for deliveries. Ms. McGroarty said that there may be ways to calm traffic at the foot of Montague other than the installation of a camera. Asked about the derelict building at the corner of Clark Street and Monroe Place, she said it has been sold to someone who intends to build a five story building on the site.

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  • lois

    Thanks for the review and synopsis, Claude. I arrived late because I attended the Ash Wednesday service at Plymouth Church – there were no seats available, so I stood thru the awards ceremony and then left. I think we need a bigger venue next year.

  • AEB

    Thanks for the deft summary, Claude. Disappointed, however, that Sifton didn’t discuss some of the Heights’ more egregious restaurant choices….

  • AEB

    Newspaper restaurant reviewing is a thankless gig. Besides the sheer leg and stomach work, the reviewer must tread a thin line, giving accurate assessments while not putting places out of business, which the Times has the power to do.

    There’s also the obligation to be entertaining–a requirement that can undermine critical veracity. No one since Mimi Sheraton seems to have understood that the restaurant critic must be a consumer advocate above all.

  • EHinBH

    What Spanish restaurant is coming to Mont Street? I think that person must be mistaken…

  • Janeonorange

    @EHinBH–everyone keeps talking about a Tapas place set to open by Andy’s….

  • Claude Scales

    I believe the Spanish restaurant is slated to go into the downstairs space just east of the Dashing Diva nail salon, which for a while was going to be yet another nail salon.

  • Gerry

    I remember China – Chile the owners Christine and Earl had the best $5 lunch a young guy working at Brooklyn Union Gas could ask for.

  • Ex-Heightster

    “A rough-and-tumble childhood” growing up on Willow Street & attending St. Anns? Really?

  • Claude Scales

    Sifton said that, back in the ’70s and early ’80s there were tough kids around and that walking through the Heights could sometimes be an adventure. Update: It still can be:

  • lori

    Absolutely – during the 70s and early 80s lots of St. Ann’s kids were mugged on their way to and from school – mostly boys. The girls were safer at the time.

  • Reggie

    Ex, for a primer on getting yoked in the Heights, see The Fortress of Solitude, by Jonathan Lethem. The private school kids were especially compliant targets.

  • Andrew Porter

    There was a time when street crime and burglaries were an epidemic in BH, back in the 1970s and 80s. Many of the apts in my building had window gates, esp. in the rear, where they were not visible from the street. Lots of doors in BH still have two and sometimes three locks on them. The 84th Precinct had a program where they’d loan out an engraving tool, so you could engrave your social security number (the days before identity theft!) on your belongings. I had mine on my computer and TV.

    There was a BHA program whereby businesses and individuals who promised to be “safe havens” could post a BHA sticker on their doors, and kids would know that if they were harassed on the street, they could run to these places and be welcomed.

    About Sifton’s talk, I for one was disappointed that Fortune House was never mentioned.

  • Miky

    I don’t think he graduated from St. Ann’s. Didn’t he leave?

  • Claude Scales

    Miky: wherever he may have gone, he managed to make it to Harvard.

    Andrew: he did mention Fortune House in conversation afterward. He liked it back in the day.