One year ago, right about this time, DeRobertis' Pasticceria closed after the family opted to sell the building in increasingly hard times for small businesses. It had been on First Avenue in the East Village since 1904. Last week I shared the news that they opened a new shop, way out in Clifton, New Jersey. You can order their pastries online, but it won't bring back the feeling of sitting in their glorious cafe.
Going into Black Seed bagels won't bring it back, either.
Black Seed, photo via Eater
As I do with all of my favorite places when they've been taken over and partly preserved by new owners, I forced myself to enter DeRobertis' replacement.
Stepping inside Black Seed, I was surprised by a sudden physical dysphoria. My stomach clenched, my head spun, my whole body trembled like a tuning fork. The cognitive dissonance of being in a space so intimately familiar, yet rendered utterly strange, was too much to bear.
The Black Seed people have kept many of DeRobertis' antique features, and I should be glad for that. It still has the tile walls and floor, the pistachio green back wall, the mirrors with their star-burst centers, but everything else is wrong, modernized and hipsterized, crammed with different people--the wrong people, people who never set foot in DeRobertis.
I hurried out, gasping for air, but vowed to get my bearings and go back another day.
Black Seed, photo via Eater
On my next trip, I steeled myself, only felt slightly woozy, and ordered a bagel sandwich and coffee. The total came to over $15. I sat in a wide wooden booth made of "reclaimed sycamore" and stared at the floor, at the empty spot where a mobster's 1821 half dollar used to be.
I focused on what felt familiar and attempted to mentally exclude the rest. The extant details of the old cafe served as potent memory cues that helped to reconstruct a vision of how the space used to be. I began to relax. But the alien elements kept intruding and unsettled me again. The smells were wrong. The sounds were wrong. My psyche flipped back and forth between the old and the new, unmoored again by a cognitive dissonance, a locational unease. Where was I? Maybe this is like getting into a bed with a lover who's just returned from a Body Snatcher pod. The voice is the same, the face seems right, but you just know you're holding an alien in your arms--and it gives you the chills.
My sandwich, if such things are important to you, was tasty. I might order another. But it's not at all difficult to find a tasty sandwich in foodie-saturated Manhattan today. What is hard to find is authenticity, history, and a haimish environment.
Even when a space is preserved, once the soul has vacated, it won't ever be the same.