For restaurant critics in New York City, the road forward is often hard to make out, but in the winter of 2020-21 the visibility was so low I sometimes felt I was driving in a blizzard. New restaurants were opening, but not in the usual sense; indoor dining was banned for the second time since the pandemic began.
That January, for instance, Rolo’s began doing business on a corner of the Ridgewood section of Queens as a grocery, bakery, sandwich shop and focaccia-by-the-slice joint by day, with an abbreviated dinner menu for takeout and delivery. Then as now, three chefs, the pastry chef and the general manager had all worked at Gramercy Tavern, which is a lot of horsepower for a restaurant where you couldn’t actually sit down.
The weather was hostile to sidewalk sandwich-eating, so one night in February I had dinner and a bottle of wine brought to my door. There was wilted cabbage, still fragrant with the smoke of Rolo’s wood grill, and melting duck confit accompanied by mustard spaetzle. I also ordered a bottle of Slovakian riesling — honey-scented, grown on the banks of the Danube and costing just $17 in that brief but glorious period of unknotted alcohol laws.
The meal helped me imagine this restaurant I had yet to see as a homage to Ridgewood’s fading past as a haven for German speakers and other Central European exiles, a legacy that survives in the neighborhood pork stores selling logs of Tyrolean sausage and slabs of dark, conifer-smoked Black Forest bacon.
It turned out that I had, at best, a partial view of Rolo’s. Now that I’ve seen the place is in full swing, with more than 100 seats at tables in its barroom, another dining area facing the open kitchen and a third in an enclosed shed on the street, it’s clear that Central Europe is a minor influence. The short pandemic menu led me to underestimate the kitchen’s range. This would be noticeable anywhere, but really stands out in a Ridgewood restaurant that, with its green canvas awnings and Venetian blinds, looks at first glance like a corner tavern where you might come for wings and a pint while watching the Mets.
Howard Kalachnikoff, Rafiq Salim and Paul Wetzel are in charge of the kitchen, preparing food that darts here and there around the world at will but most frequently hovers over Italy.
Rolo’s contribution to the Ridgewood pork-product tradition is a housemade mortadella. What the restaurant calls wood-fired polenta bread turns out to be a wheel of flatbread about six inches across. The polenta gives the interior a creamy softness you won’t find inside many pizzas, but the crust arrives with the puffy outer lip and the charred blisters you’d expect on a Neapolitan pizza.
The toppings may also be pizzalike, as in the model that glistens with a fire engine-red layer of Calabrian chile butter. Then again, they may not be; the wonderfully fragrant round of bread coated with sesame seeds and ground, dried oregano in olive oil obviously descends from manaeesh, a bread from a different corner of the Mediterranean.
In fact, it may be more useful to think of the polenta bread at Rolo’s as essentially Middle Eastern. A loaf or two could become the centerpiece for a mezze course: boiled chickpeas over a puddle of garlic tahini, say, or, more excitingly, some crisp half-moons of spicy carrot pickles, crunchy with cracked coriander, and a bowl of milky stracciatella dusted with sumac and Turkish silk peppers. (This is the same chile that was a prime export of Aleppo before that city was devastated by the civil war in Syria.)
Pasta is always on the menu, like the rigatoni in a crunchy, red-and-green pesto of tomatoes and chopped pistachios. There is an admirable attempt at lasagna Bolognese made with two long, thin planks of green pasta that the wood oven toasts in some patches and leaves tender in others. The night I had it, only the underseasoned meat stew inside kept the whole package from being a complete success.
This is not a complaint anyone will make about most of Rolo’s cooking, which tends toward bright, punchy flavors. The dry-style Sichuan cabbage — fried, grilled and showered with powdered Sichuan peppercorns and other spices — is compelling in exactly the way I imagine the mala-flavored Doritos sold in Asia must be. Grilled chicken stacked over garlic bread gets an appealingly sweet layer of heat from a pepper relish made with Fresno chiles.
The most interesting thing to come out of the kitchen, weirdly enough, may be a side dish of potatoes. The starting point is the Dutch treatment of French fries called patatje oorlog, which translates as “war fries.” Rolo’s uses fried, skin-on potato wedges instead of ordinary fries, and while they are very crisp and very good on their own, you might not remember them if they were not buried under raw onions, fiery Indonesian peanut sauce and a quantity of mayonnaise that is rarely seen outside a jar.
By day, Rolo’s pastry chef and head baker, Kelly Mencin, turns out sticky and lightly caramelized Zeeuwse bolussen, the Dutch cinnamon buns, and other sweets, along with the focaccias that helped get Rolo’s through the pandemic. By night, her desserts are simple, sensible and meticulous: a tart with a brown-butter crust and a filling of sour cherries, or a cross between a sundae and a Pavlova that serves as showcase for winter citrus.
Certain first impressions I drew from the Slovakian riesling that Rolo’s delivered were unwarranted. The list is not an ode to the Danube, and nothing on it is still as cheap as $17. (About half of the 100 or so bottles cost between $50 and $70.) I wasn’t wrong, though, to think that somebody with an eye for value and out-of-the-way regions was in charge. Ben Howell, the general manager, gathered all the cool appellations, and a few that are waiting to be let into the club, before turning the keys to the cellar over to Harrison Weiss.
Of course, a $44 muscat will not seem cheap to everybody. As Chris Crowley reported last year in Grub Street, Rolo’s has been a flash point for neighbors who worry that it and other new businesses will help push rents in Ridgewood beyond the reach of working-class and middle-class families.
One of the owners of Rolo’s, Stephen Maharam, is a partner in the local real-estate development firm of Kermit Westergaard. The two men own Rolo’s building, with Mr. Kalachnikoff, Mr. Wetzel and Mr. Salim. Mr. Westergaard, who owns a number of other buildings nearby, including the one where he lives, follows a pattern familiar in many cities: buy, renovate and install street-level businesses that make the area more appealing to people who can afford the new rents.
We’re used to chefs and restaurateurs opening in neighborhoods where the rents are cheaper; it’s one of the secrets of longevity in the business. But growing numbers are putting their reputations, talent and labor at the service of developers whose idea of building a neighborhood might be at odds with the desire of the people who live there to keep living there.
In its defense, any business that manages to be as busy and popular as Rolo’s can be a blessing for street life, making the area safer than a vacant storefront would. But as more and more developers come calling, restaurants should keep in mind that they risk being complicit in the negative aspects of gentrification — more than that, they risk making their customers complicit, too. You can have a full house and lose sight of the whole community, just as you can eat a delicious meal and have just a partial view of a restaurant.
What the Stars Mean Because of the pandemic, restaurants are not being given star ratings.