Zahra Tangorra is in the kitchen at her restaurant, Brucie, waxing lyrical about her hip-hop past and the inspiration behind today’s menu. Having just flipped through some old issues of Mass Appeal stashed in her basement, Zahra has come prepared. “I kind of thought it would be funny to do like a ‘get that ricotta, bada bing, bada boom’ [dish]” she says, quoting the MF DOOM lyrics with a wry smile. As the owner and chef of this Cobble Hill Italian eatery, ricotta makes an appearance in many of her recipes. Her hip-hop approach, however, has an ironic backstory.
In early 2006, Zahra was asked to spend some time touring with Mr. Lif and The Coup. She and Lif had become friends years before when they met at Long Island hip-hop mecca the Cop Shop. The opportunity sounded ideal to the then-23-year-old, Tangorra and she looked forward to “selling some merch, traveling and having fun” with her bestie, Lif.
Unfortunately, Zahra’s life on the road was halted by disaster that December. Their tour bus driver fell asleep at the wheel just outside of San Diego and steered the bus off of a 40-foot cliff. While the group escaped with their lives, Zahra was among the worst injured. This harrowing experience would make anyone regret touring – that is, unless one could turn the tragedy into a windfall, like Zahra did.
“[Going on the tour] was probably one of the best decisions I ever made,” she says. “Because we wouldn’t be here having this conversation otherwise.” Zahra used the settlement money from the accident to start Brucie a few years later.
Since establishing the restaurant in 2010, Zahra’s involvement in the hip-hop scene has taken a back seat, yet she still maintains an impressive, encyclopedic knowledge of the music. “There was a little wrinkle in time – 1999 to 2003 – when underground hip-hop was awesome,” she recalls.
Besides being a rap genius, Zahra is also a former graffiti artist. “I did a lot of graffiti-style paintings… I definitely went out and got up and stuff,” Zahra recalls. “But, I don’t want to take away from people who are really great graf writers,” she adds modestly. Zahra still holds some of those mercurial artistic qualities, changing the menu in Brucie everyday by using whatever fresh ingredients are in season. “Like today we got this ‘hopefully lamb and not dog’ in,” she jokes about an order mishap that morning. “No, I’m kidding. We got this lamb. So this week, we will probably make a lot of stuff with lamb.”
Zahra runs a pretty relaxed kitchen at Brucie and we kind of want to stay and hang out. Between takes she introduces us to some of the staff, many of which go by superhero aliases. There’s “Captain Heat,” Zahra’s sous chef and right-hand man, George. “Sometimes, at the end of the night, he’ll tie his apron around his neck, fashion another apron into a diaper and put on glasses,” she explains with a deadpan expression, as if this is a normal end-of-night closing ritual. FYI – Peter Parker is to Spiderman as George is to Captain Heat.
Meatballs and marinara sauce may have replaced Masta Ace and Midnight Marauders for Zahra Tangorra, but subtle hints of her hip-hop past remain at Brucie. Glancing at a menu, the word “Biggie” sits above a list of entrees while Smalls describes the appetizers – the items appear backwards but for Zahra they’re in the right order.
1 gallon whole organic milk
1 cup organic cream
¼ cup lemon juice
Yields 1 quart
Combine milk and cream in a large *STAINLESS STEEL saucepot, with salt to taste, approx. 2 tablespoons; it shouldn’t be very salty. Put over medium heat and keep a hairy eyeball on it; you don’t want it to burn. Stir occasionally until it becomes foamy at the top, an “almost boil.” Turn off heat, add lemon juice and quickly stir three times around. Let sit for 15 minutes, then strain into a very, very fine colander or over cheesecloth. Leave it in the colander or cheesecloth on top of another bowl and let it continue to drain in the fridge for another hour. Then eat it!
Kale Salad With Ricotta, Pistachios, Apple and Chilies
1 bunch lacinato kale, very thinly sliced
½ red onion thinly sliced
1 apple, something tart and crisp like a pink lady apple, you guessed it, thinly sliced
½ red jalapeño whole (just kidding) thinly sliced
½ cup pistachios coarsely chopped
½ cup of your very own homemade ricotta
Combine all ingredients (including dressing) besides ricotta in large bowl. Crumble/dollop ricotta on top and lightly toss together without thoroughly combining.
For Honey Vinaigrette:
Use local raw honey if you can. The local honey comes from local bees, which in turn can boost your immune system. Weird science!
¼ cup honey
¼ cup good red wine vinegar
2 cloves garlic finely minced
¾ cups best olive oil you can get your hands on
Salt and black pepper to taste
Whisk all ingredients together for most delish dressing ever.
Rigatoni Tony Tone Alla Vodka With Bitter Greens, Ricotta and Parmigianino
4 cups basic tomato sauce (homemade sauce is the only path to choose)
2 cups organic heavy cream
½ cup shitty vodka
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
½ cup organic butter
1lb. good quality rigatoni (Boil 2-3 minutes short of package directions)
2 cups, or about one average-size bunch bitter greens (i.e. dandelion greens or puntarella), or spinach if bitter greens aren’t your thing, cleaned and chopped in to about 1-inch strips
1 cup homemade ricotta
1 cup freshly grated Parmigianino
Healthy drizzle of good olive oil for finishing
Torn basil to finish, but only if it’s summertime
For sauce, combine tomato sauce, salt, sugar and vodka in stainless steel saucepan and place over medium heat. Bring to a slow simmer, about 10 minutes, and add cream. Simmer on low for approx. 20 minutes. Stir in butter and simmer for 5 minutes more. Add cooked pasta and greens and simmer 3 minutes more. Place in large serving bowl and finish with dollops of fresh, cold ricotta and grated parm and a few drizzles of olive oil. Yum!
Ricotta Ice Cream
2-½ cups homemade ricotta
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup cream
1 teaspoon salt
Put ricotta into a blender and blend until smooth. Add sugar, vanilla, almond extracts, salt and blend some more. Add cream. Add more salt if you want it saltier. Blend another 10 seconds or so. Chill and put in home ice cream maker according to directions. Serve with honey, sea salt and drizzle of good olive oil.
*You have to use a stainless steal pot because aluminum will turn your ricotta grey! Ew!