It’s drizzling out, and people are shuffling down Irving Avenue with scrunched faces and hunched shoulders, trying to keep the wind from blowing the rain down their necks. In front of one building, though, is a piece of sidewalk the rain seems to have forgotten. A wide oval of bone-dry cement is an odd sight right now — you put your hand out to make sure it’s still raining. It is. What’s this about? And then you notice the storefront, a cheerful cream-colored expanse of old-looking wood and narrow windows. There’s a warm glow inside.
This is where you’ll find Charlie Verde, exhausted after six months of nonstop labor to transform his former construction firm’s office into Verde Coal Oven, an intimate Sicilian eatery. Antique doors, windows, and trims abound, salvaged from an old house before it was demolished and installed here seamlessly. The interior is full of Carrara marble, patinaed wood, and seemingly random decorations like needlepoint saints and candelabra. They are random. “Each one of these things were given to me by family and friends,” said the gregarious Verde.
Charlie Verde, born in Sicily, moved to Bushwick when he was 9. Local kids made fun of him because he couldn’t speak English. But adversity just made him work harder, he says. Now he has a home on Long Island with a wife and three children, a construction business based in Bushwick, and a handful of properties in the area. He’s owned them for several years, all within blocks of this storefront. His plans for them are material for future stories.
Back to the sidewalk: it is directly above a gigantic coal-fired oven. The intense heat keeps even rain from wetting the pavement. The oven was built in 1905, it’s 18 feet deep, and it heats up to 1000F. “Actually, it can go higher, but shouldn’t,” Verde said, pointing to a shattered thermometer. There aren’t exactly an abundance of coal-oven experts in the city, so trial and error is the only way to get the process down.
There are only seven of these ovens left in the city that work, according to Verde. Building new ones is forbidden, but existing ones can still be used. Verde spent thousands refurbishing the old stone and brick beast, including his own labor; he’s a bricklayer by trade. Dozens of pizzas and hundreds of loaves of bread can be baked at once. Pillowy anise cookies and biscotti also come out of the oven. “Crazy Carmine,” another Sicily native and Bushwick local, makes the pizza; Peter the Hungarian baker cranks out the breads, including round loaves of old-fashioned Italian white. All of this is fished out of the enormous oven’s maw with wooden peels upwards of 22 feet long.
During the day, the shop will sell Italian food items like dried pasta, imported canned tomatoes, sauces, olive oil, cheese, and cured meats. On a recent weekday evening, a couple came in, bought two sodas, and left.
But at night, Verde hopes to attract locals to dine in — and it’s working. He’s been overwhelmed in just the last two weeks with customers filling his dining room by word of mouth. The restaurant serves, in addition to pizza, a range of Sicilian appetizers like caponata.
The pizzas are about 10 inches across, simply topped, lightly salted, with an ultra-thin crispy-crackery crust. The sauce is pure San Marzano tomatoes and locally grown basil. It’s not a feast, but it’s honest food, and at $7-15 you can get all you like. Sicilian wines and Italian beers will be on offer when the license comes in, but for now get a short espresso after dinner.
On your way out, shake hands with Charlie and grab a ciabatta to go. It’ll set you back about $3 and it stays good for two days.