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The Hand That Feeds
The Hand That Feeds

The Hand That Feeds

Chef Zahra Tangorra may not be professionally trained in the kitchen, but she’s making moves—and rave-worthy lasagna—at her Brooklyn restaurant, Brucie.
By Paul Caine. Photographed by Max Hield

Brucie, which opened two years ago in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, is the sort of low-key but extremely charming restaurant everyone wishes was around the corner from their apartment. The mostly Italian menu changes daily, bartenders pour cocktails with ingredients like blossom water, and diners break bread in a subterranean, wood-accented dining room. Overseeing it all is chef-owner Zahra Tangorra, a brassy native Long Islander with a warm laugh, a penchant for chunky jewelry, and absolutely no professional training.

That’s not to say Tangorra can’t cook—quite the opposite. A lifelong home cook and entertainer, Tangorra was always the one hosting dinner parties, bringing friends over to her apartment for homemade ravioli and red wine. And then tragedy struck—an automobile accident left her with serious injuries (thankfully now healed), a settlement cheque, and some major decisions to make. Eventually, at the urging of friends, she signed a lease and began building her vision. “At first, I wanted to evoke the memories and traditions of the old-school pork stores that I grew up going to in Long Island,” she says, “with sausage hanging in the window.” Over time, the restaurant evolved. Tangorra began purchasing produce from an organic farmer’s co-op in Pennsylvania; she learned how to butcher whole animals. Now, a given night’s menu might include swordfish with tomato ragout, or heirloom turnips with house-made burrata, along with a recurring lasagna dish that’s too popular to rotate out.

Tangorra is the first to admit that running a business isn’t all blossom water and roses—in fact, it’s exceedingly difficult, and it doesn’t get much easier with time. But the moments of joy more than make up for the occasional frustration. “On a Saturday night, when the place is packed and there’s a line out the door.... or when people tell me they fell in love here,” she says, smiling. “I mean, how do you even measure that?”

ZAHRA TANGORRA'S LAST MEAL: Tangorra indulges us with what she’d pile on her plate during her final hours for a morbid (but fun!) analysis of her taste buds.

1. I’d start with some really good briny East Coast oysters. Straight up—clean and simple. I’m a big oyster fan. And I’d pour some good champagne and a Negroni, in that order.

2. Crusty, piping-hot bread with some really good sweet butter and sea salt. Emilio in my kitchen makes the world’s best bread, a wheat boule with a nice crust, so that’s what I’d want.

3. A bowl of really simple spaghetti with perfect tomato sauce and freshly grated pecorino, and olive oil, and a lot of sliced garlic.

4. Roast chicken with herb butter and lemon, simple but delicious. Like the brick chicken from Marlow & Sons in Williamsburg. And by the way, all of this would have to go with awesome wine—natural and funky. Definitely a lot of Syrah.

5. Pistachio gelato with a shot of Fernet Branca. And that would be it—then I would die.