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With Black Seed, De Robertis Space Moves Forward, Mindful of the Past

derobertis sign
On First Avenue near East 11th Street.

Like many fans, we at Off the Grid were heartbroken when it really happened, after months and years of rumors: De Robertis Pastry Shop closed in December. Nos. 174 and 176 First Avenue were sold, and no one knew what would happen to the soulful storefront. Now there is some hopeful news to report coming from the new tenants: The big, beautiful neon sign reading “De Robertis Pastry Shoppe” is staying put; or at least so say Noah Bernamoff and Matt Kliegman, owners of Black Seed Bagels, which will occupy the space where De Robertis baked cookies for 110 years.

Bereft fans of the Italian pastry shop already were given reason for hope when Black Seed’s tenancy was reported earlier this month − at least another independent bakery would be taking over, rather than a chain store or such. The owners said they plan to keep the tin ceiling and distinctive tilework that lent the place much of its charm. They aim to open the new shop in late spring.

In response to inquiries from Off the Grid, Bernamoff, an owner of the Mile End delis, and Kliegman, an owner of The Smile, tell us they also intend to keep the neon sign out front. Its fate was unknown; a member of the De Robertis extended family had explained to Off the Grid that when the family chose to sell the building, they left the sign up because it had been affixed for so long that they feared removal could damage the facade.

“It’s not going anywhere,” Kliegman said today. Added Bernamoff, “We prefer to keep the neon as intact as we possibly can without misleading people.” They may choose to light only the “pastry shoppe” portion, for example; it remains to be seen. They anticipate that the primary “Black Seed” signage will be on an awning, roughly in the vein of the other main bakery location on Elizabeth Street (there’s also a kiosk in Brookfield Place).

In general, the pair say their goal is to bring back as much of the early-20th century material and look as possible, while removing some mid- and late-20th century fixtures – like the front display cases and shelves behind them. “We discovered beautiful old brick walls behind there,” Bernamoff said. He asserts that the tin ceiling, hand-cut wall tiles, round “penny tiles” on the floor (which aren’t made anymore) are all staying – but where those elements are missing or damaged, they will not be replaced with facsimiles.

Black Seed Bagels owners Matt Bernamoff, left, and Matt Kliegman. Photo by Daniel Krieger.

“It’s better to leave what’s there than try to recreate it,” Bernamoff said. “We want to have it feel old, and have it feel historic … If we try to recreate [vintage elements], it will take away the specialness of some of what is there. We don’t want to create confusion. We want people to recognize that the space is 110 years old.”

He says he does foresee one possible re-creation, however, and that’s of the old storefront. The new wood-burning oven used to bake the shop’s Montreal-style bagels won’t fit through the current storefront, so it will be dismantled. The large gate will be removed, and the pair envisions installing a wood storefront with the entrance on the left – which is what they saw in old photos that John De Robertis showed them. Meanwhile, the basement bakery will also be revamped and reused, though in a more contemporary fashion.

Kliegman, who’s lived in the East Village for over a decade, and Bernamoff, who’s made waves by bringing Montreal-style Jewish delicatessen to New York, learned of the building’s sale through friends who facilitated a new bakery taking the place of the old – which is what Mr. De Robertis wanted, the partners say.

In both their cafes and the food itself, they say they come from “a preservation place.”

“We both care deeply about history and architecture,” said Kliegman. “We like to do things that have some meaning,” Bernamoff added. “It’s such an amazing opportunity for us to have access to the space.”

We are eager to see how the renovation works out, and how the business manages in the highly competitive and ever-evolving East Village food scene. We’re pretty curious about the bagels, too.

To learn about GVSHP’s work on restaurant preservation, check out the blog post The Restaurant Toolbox: Menu Options for Saving Important Food Establishments.

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