One of the oldest organizations of its kind in the country, the Brooklyn Historical Society (128 Pierrepont Street; 718-624-0890) is a great place to get started if you want to learn more about the borough. With maps, books, flat files full of vintage photographs, and a staff with an encyclopedic knowledge of these parts, you can find out all manner of Brooklyn historical arcana – for instance, on a recent visit I was wondering which houses on Middagh Street are the oldest (don’t ask why); thanks to the BHS’s well-organized collection of historical reference materials, it didn’t take long to find out that No. 24 was built first (in 1824). BHS also has some kick-ass walking tours.
To be honest, St. George Hotel (100 Henry Street; 718-624-5000) is a site whose glory days have come and gone. But in the same way that Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel has become a landmark, so has St. George (on a lesser scale) become a storied fixture in Brooklyn Heights. I’d hate to see it disappear, so I recommend it to those who don’t mind a hotel that’s more than a bit frayed at the edges. Built in 1884, its high point came during and after World War II. Now it has a forlorn look and feel of the sort that the nostalgia-minded, who prefer history over fresh paint, will appreciate as “character.”
Amid the plethora of pastry shops that dot Carroll Gardens, Monte Leone (355 Court Street; 718-624-9253) stands out. Their flaky cannoli, tasty bite-size cookies, and other Italian pastries are always perfect for dessert (bringing a box of pastries from Monte’s helps to guarantee that you’ll be a hit at Brooklyn dinner parties). During the summer they also whip up their famous “homemade” Italian ices (the best kind is definitely the cremolata – vanilla with pieces of toasted almond) for the hordes of kids and adults who congregate outside.
St. Ann’s (157 Montague Street; 718-875-6960) was the first church with painted stained-glass windows in the whole of the United States; they were modeled on the windows at Kings College in Cambridge. On a sunny afternoon, the view from within in is spectacular– the perfect place to sneak a needed moment of respite and reflection. St. Ann’s also hosts a series of concerts that are quite popular in the neighborhood (call for the schedule).
Although I wouldn’t say the yards and gardens in this area are a model of landscape gardening (the prevalent mixture of flamingo statuettes with Virgin Marys – not to mention bloodied mannequins crawling out of mock graves at Halloween and thousands of lights at Christmas – definitely crosses the line of tasteful), one has to marvel at the sheer quantity of space that homeowners here have to play around with. And some of the more toned-down gardens are actually pretty charming. Eat your heart out, Manhattan.
To get a more primal and private view of the Manhattan skyline (more Copland than Manhattan), walk past the River Cafe and through its parking lot to a lesser-known promenade from which you can appreciate the view amid the murky swirls of water and the hulking underbelly of the Brooklyn Bridge. This is a great feeling-sorry-for-yourself spot or a destination for gritty contemplation.
Noodle Pudding (38 Henry Street; 718-625-3737) certainly has one of our favorite names for a restaurant, though the menu unfortunately doesn’t list this dish (which is actually more Jewish than Italian in its origins). But the owners’ family name, Migliaccio, does happen to mean “noodle pudding” in Italian. And the restaurant has good Italian food: pastas, antipasto, and desserts that are moderately priced given their quality. A great place to sample fare that’s a bit more Northern Italian in flavor than that of some of Noodle Pudding’s Carroll Gardens’ equivalents.
Vintage Cellars (311 Smith Street; 718-643-8336) is where I go when I need a good bottle of wine in Carroll Gardens. There are a number of other neighborhood wine stores nearby, but I particularly appreciate Vintage Cellars’s knowledgeable staff and wide variety of reasonably priced bottles.
Staubitz (222 Court Street; 718-624-0014) is one of those old-fashioned butcher shops that puts an almost archaic emphasis on customer service. The staff here knows meat – they’ll gladly answer endless questions about cooking, right down to reviewing the pros and cons of different barbecue-sauce brands, depending on the particular flavor you hope to bring out in your purchase. They deliver, of course, and they take advance orders for even modest cuts. Mr. Staubitz, the proprietor, is a sort of gentleman-hero in the ’hood.
The heyday of Atlantic Avenue’s port (at the end of Atlantic Avenue) is long gone, though a few reminders of its former glory persist – bars with names like “The Wharf,” the occasional plaintive horn blast from a passing boat, the special societies and hospitals set up for longshoremen. But I still highly recommend a walk down by the water (bring a friend; it can feel a bit deserted at times) to get your fill of scenery that is ever so romantic in its dilapidation.