Nick Birnback’s Love Letter to Noodle Pudding

Yesterday, Noodle Pudding announced on Instagram: “We have made the very difficult decision to close the restaurant for the foreseeable future. We will be posting any updates here. Thanks to everyone who came in to support us this past week. Everyone stay healthy.”

This seems like the perfect time to share Brooklyn Heights resident Nick Birnback’s love letter to the neighborhood’s most beloved restaurant, originally posted on Mark Bittman’s blog Heated on Medium. Nick also happens to be husband to Lara Birnback, the Executive Director of the Brooklyn Heights Association. Here’s the piece, with a new introduction that Nick wrote especially for BHB. Photos by Johnny Fogg.

I’ve always loved telling stories about the restaurants I went to in Brooklyn when I was a kid. I spent the balance of my adult life overseas and talking about the meatballs at Bamonte’s or the veal parm at Nino’s always made me less homesick–whether they were actually any good or not. But it took me a while to realize that I now have a “local” of my own–right here in Brooklyn Heights. I’ve been going to Noodle Pudding for over twenty years, transitioning to the loud young guy at the bar closing the place down with his friends to the martini guy with the 6 o’clock table in the corner playing Uno with his Shirley Temple drinking daughter. I’ve celebrated there and I’ve commemorated there. I’ve listened to Tony the owner/cook tell his amazing stories about the lengths he goes through for fresh fish in his even more amazing Italiobrooklyn-by-way-of-a-gangster-movie accent. I’ve watched Jim and the rest of the unflappable crew handle four-to-six table turns a night and just generally felt lucky to have a place with terrific food, a few blocks from home that is entirely unpretentious and whole heartedly comfortable in its own restaurantskin. Noodle pudding works on every level. It’s OUR place and when this horrorshow is over, I know exactly where I’ll celebrate.

‘Unlike the Red Sauceries of my Childhood, the Food at my Local Is Extraordinary’

pen for almost 25 years in the same location at 38 Henry Street, Brooklyn’s Noodle Pudding isn’t an old-school local like the ones we went to when I was a kid. My family did steak for special occasions, but for those please-don’t-make-us-eat-Grandma-Bertha’s-cooking-again nights, we were all about destination Brooklyn Italian restaurants: Nino’s on Union Street in Carroll Gardens, Tomasso’s on 86th in Bay Ridge, Bamonte’s on Withers in Williamsburg, and Queen Restaurant on Court Street near Atlantic in the South Heights.

The food was never the thing at these places; it was the vibe. Think Louis Prima or Dino singing, hazy and soft fauxmantic lighting that became even more appealing once we were old enough to drink too much. Loud, verbalized appreciation when you walked in. Names remembered or faked. Cheeks kissed, shoulders grasped, children allowed or asked after, preferred cocktails remembered. Lobster, pork roasts, Sunday gravy.

Noodle Pudding is all this too, though it’s updated with better ingredients and is sufficiently Brooklyn-as-brand for those who might care about such things. But what resonates for me is the same sense of inclusion that I felt as a kid walking into one of our familial haunts: A sense of being a part of the grand continuum of The City, a feeling of belonging and a comestible demonstration of humanness. And unlike the red sauceries of my childhood, the food at my local is frigging extraordinary.

Noodle Pudding is relentlessly cheery: Christmas-colored fairy lights twinkle all year round. A big wooden farmhouse center table sits in the middle of the front room. It’s usually centered with a cornucopia in the fall, or a plattered rainbow of vibrant heirlooms in late summer, along with grab-and-go flatware. They’re busy, always.

Noodle Pudding is entirely unapologetic. “Proudly cash ONLY!” reads the front page of the menu. “No, we do NOT take reservations!” says the sign on the door. There’s no real signage outside (you know where it is, or you don’t), no website and it can be hard to get them on the phone.

Staff is friendly but never overly so. There’s Tommy, who usually manages but also bartends, busses tables, runs plates from the kitchen, and probably fixes broken chairs. His head is always up, he doesn’t miss much, and he seems hard-wired to the room when he’s on the floor. Then there’s Mike, a regular bartender who remembers that you like a twist, not olives, in your martini — and serves the shaker along with the poured cocktail. He can banter with any human on earth, if he wants to. He will play himself is there’s ever a movie about bartenders in Brooklyn. Then there’s Jim, “our” wry waiter — who remembers my kid’s unusual name and her regular order. He’s a master of convivial but bone-dry deadpan humor — while gently upselling us on the off-menu special.

The ever restless chef-owner Tony Migliaccio helms the ship. He grew up on an island in the Bay of Naples selling home-baked bread, door to door. He came to Brooklyn as a teenager because he didn’t want to sell bread anymore and a relative in Carroll Gardens got him work as a longshoreman. He turned to cooking because he didn’t like the food he was eating and he’s been killing it ever since.

For the last 25 years at Noodle Pudding, he has put out a different menu every day based on whatever he buys fresh, but no one says “seasonal” or “market-driven” or any of that: Fish from the Hunts Point market, a fisherman friend in Montauk, or from his guy at the Brooklyn Heights Greenmarket; meat from a guy called Jimmy the butcher on Roosevelt Avenue. There’s usually the not-always-popular stuff, like fresh sardines and tripe and mackerel and a whole grilled porgy, because that’s what fresh and what he likes to cook. And if you don’t like it, well, he has suggestions for what you can do with that, too.

More crowd-pleasing staples are an option, like Jimmy’s pork chop, and his seafood pastas, which are the best in Brooklyn for my money. Nothing is a throwaway: A perfect side of mashed fava beans comes with a drizzle of fruity olive oil and big flakes of salt and hits the table hot, melty, and irresistible.

Noodle Pudding also has my favorite pricing structure of any New York restaurant. If you want something nice like a call-ahead sliced crusted Prime rib for six, or a cooked-all-day osso buco, they can hook you up. Those dishes run in the high $30s per person with no sides; a special pasta overflowing with fresh seafood might top out in the mid-$20s. But there’s also a perfectly cooked whole local fish for $20. An amazing plate of homemade gnocchi is $14. A generous tortellini in brodo is $8. The two-page wine list, pretty much all Italian — with “Don’t be shy, cheap wine can be good!” on the front — also has two tiers of pricing. You want a nice Sassicaia? Sure, pony up, pal. But if you’re feeling less grand, how about the house red or house white, both totally solid Italian table wines, for $15 a pop? For the bottle.

Oh, and if you’re “under 10 or over 80″ and you have a birthday, they lower the lights, turn on a disco ball, and play happy birthday and everyone sings. I know that this sounds horrible, but we’ve done this a number of times and it’s really wonderful. Everyone in the place always sings and claps. Last winter there was a Christmas carol flash mob when I was there. It’s simply impossible to be cranky while eating at Noodle Pudding.

Whether it’s alone at the bar or with friends from out of town; a celebratory dinner, or an early after work supper; whether you’re feeling flush or you’re feeling broke, in a corner of Kings County where the food still tends to underwhelm, Noodle Pudding is never the wrong answer to the all important question, “Where should we eat?” It’s why I effing love the place.

Nick Birnback was born and raised in Brooklyn. He has worked for UN peace operations all over the world for the past two decades and writes about eating and drinking in New York whenever he can. You can find him on Instagram at nickybklyn70.

Johnny Fogg is a photographer and Japanese tea ceremony teacher, raised in Virginia and living and working in New York City.

BHB thanks Nick Birnback and Mark Bittman for permission to reprint the piece, including all photos, originally posted on May 1, 2019 on Heated.

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  • Roberto Gautier

    Bravissimo Nick for recognizing in detail and with heart that we have been blessed to have Antonio bring us an authentic trattoria that has lived fully for nearly a quarter of a century.
    A la vostra salute Antonio, kitchen, staff and clientele.

  • AEB

    I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t feel the loss of Noodle Pudding, even temporarily, to be a loss to our community; as such, it is something we take personally. Can we mourn for a restaurant? Of course!