Words by Eleanor Cleverly • Photography by Adam Bedient
Like many restaurateurs, Ron Brown, owner and chef at the not-yet-year-old Barboncino, knew he was taking a leap when he signed for its 781 Franklin Avenue spot. Walking through the barely-hinged front doors of the 2000-square-foot space, he says he emitted an audible gasp. Floors a wreck, walls barely standing, and the ceiling a fit of decaying sheetrock, too many uninspired or downright scared had passed it over. Ron saw something more.
“What I was looking for, all along, was a great space that felt like a surprise when you entered it,” Ron reflected recently. “In a neighborhood that was under-served, and hopefully changing, bringing in people who would have the ability to enjoy the restaurant that I was going to put in.”
Having helmed five food ventures prior to embarking on Barboncino, Ron is no novice in the kitchen. In the 1980s, he opened a small ice cream parlor in Greenwich Village, Minter’s Ice Cream, which became a New York Magazine Best Bet, an enterprise that grew into a more prominent spot in the once vital South Street Seaport. Later, he’d find a home in the World Financial Center, the beige, domed structures that stand across from the World Trade Center site, for a full service restaurant. Decades since taking on his first food endeavor, Ron opened Barboncino in Fall 2011.
"I knew I wanted to do a restaurant. I didn’t know the location Gods would allow me to do a pizza place, which has always been what I’ve wanted."
Barboncino is a thoughtful take on simple, Neapolitan-style pizza, in the heart of Brooklyn’s transforming Crown Heights neighborhood. In less than six months, its sedate and authentic menu has been compared with hallowed establishments long renowned for revered specialties and family recipes. In a February 2012 review, The Village Voice exclaimed Ron’s pizza “an artifact from another time and continent … the pie better than that at Kesté, Manhattan’s most respected Naples-style parlor.”
“I spent eleven months walking the streets of Brooklyn,” recalled Ron, while describing the origins of this newfound esteem. “From neighborhood to neighborhood, completing the process of falling in love [with the borough], and also looking for a space.
“It was a very scary time, because when they say, ‘Location, location, location,’ they really mean it. I knew I wanted to do a restaurant. I didn’t know the location Gods would allow me to do a pizza place, which has always been what I’ve wanted to do.”
The Gods seem to be on his side, more than in the serendipity of his storefront location. Barboncino’s Executive Chef is none other than Jon Greenberg, a talent who cut his teeth at another favored Naples-style establishment, Paulie Gee’s. The two literally bumped into each other on Franklin Ave. during Barboncino’s construction, another indication of heavenly intervention. While comparisons to Paulie Gee’s have trailed Jon, it’s a dilemma Ron embraces.
“You know what, Paulie is such an amazing guy,” says Ron. “I know him personally, and he makes such beautiful, delicious pies that any comparison people want to give to me with him, is fine.”
In 1979, Ron moved to New York City to pursue a career in acting and singing. Life on the stage afforded him a slew of off Broadway gigs and even a Radio City Music Hall appearance. At the same time, while riding the ebb and flow of performances and part-time work, he struggled with another figurehead, a nagging presence that catapulted him into the food world.
“Things were going good, but there was a little voice in the back of my head, from my father, saying, ‘Get a real job,’” said Ron. “I grew up in a very traditional, conservative family, and his voice was saying, ‘This won’t last, you’ve got to get real.’”
In the late 1990s, Ron began inching back into the creative world, dabbling in writing. The short stories he’d pen took on a cinematic quality, and in 2005 he released his first feature film, A Perfect Fit. The psychological thriller about a doomed love affair gained attention, acquiring distribution with the support of its leading actor, Entourage star Adrian Grenier. His 2010 follow-up, Consent, about a Manhattan family’s struggle to come to terms with the suicide of their eldest daughter, stars Ron’s son, Peter Vack.
On our initial visit to Barboncino, Peter stood behind the bar. It was his first, and likely one of only a handful of times he’ll ever do so. The twenty-five-year old was recently the protagonist of I Just Want My Pants Back, a modern, coming-of-age comedy based on the life of young Brooklynites, which aired for a single season on MTV. While Ron admits Peter’s following his own youthful path, he’s adamant he’s making his own mark.
“I think [Peter's] footprint is already quite a bit larger than mine was, which is something that I love,” Ron remarked with a chuckle. “He’s really, very good. He does one thing very well on Pants, but he also has a lot of range. As much as he plays the sweet, lovable, young guy, he can play a complete asshole.”
While it’s unlikely you’ll saunter into Barboncino to see Peter behind the bar anytime soon, there’s a distinct possibility that you’ll run into Ron. His role in the restaurant is limitless, and his influence can be seen from the most minor design decisions, to complete menu overhauls.
“All of the aesthetic choices were mine. I went to pick out every single piece of furniture. I sought out the samples,” said Ron. “This was a place done on a budget, and had I used a contractor, there’d be no way. I actually bid it out to contractors and it would have cost two and a half times what I had.”
When it came to purchasing an oven, a possible make-or-breaker when it comes to baking pies, Ron trained with the Stefano Ferrara family. The Naples, Italy institution has a legacy of creating the most esteemed kitchens, and while their instruction provided a base, it wasn’t until returning to Brooklyn that something miraculous was made.
"The choices on the menu are simple. No pie has many more than three toppings, but we hope they’re great combinations."
“Once we got into the space we had to adjust [all the dough recipes], because as they warned me, each recipe needs to be discovered in the space you’re in. There are different temperatures, humidity, and qualities to the water,” said Ron.
“So, we spent six or seven weeks, before we opened, every night — my wife, Peter, my wife’s sister, and sometimes Peter’s girlfriend — and I would’ve made a batch of dough several days before (because that’s how long they have to rise), and then we’d try the dough and have a discussion about what we liked and what we thought it needed. Then, I’d refine it and we’d go back to the drawing board until we came up with the recipes that we were happy with.”
The product is a well-calibrated menu of pizza, keeping with tradition while venerating the “less is more” philosophy. “My overriding goal with the whole place is to keep things simple, from the ambiance, to the food,” said Ron. “So that when people come, they instantly feel calm. They’re not overwhelmed with a lot of text, they’re not overwhelmed with a lot of choices on the menu. No pie has many more than three toppings, but we hope they’re great combinations.”
So far, Ron has been blessed by a marriage of great timing, the ideal location, and enough talent and life experience to create an establishment New Yorkers have taken to. Still, he’s humble about his success, acknowledging that all his work is in service of a greater good. “We’re just having an incredible time, trying every day to do a very simple thing, that’s not that simple,” concluded Ron. “To make people feel taken care of.”
Barboncino, 781 Franklin Ave., Brooklyn NY • 718.483.8834 • barboncinopizza.com