LaLou in Prospect Heights (Courtesy of Liz Clayman)
LaLou in Prospect Heights (Courtesy of Liz Clayman)
By Jason Diamond / July 25, 2019 9:04 am

My 28th birthday coincided with my five-year anniversary of calling New York City my home. I was in my late 20s, trying to get more serious about my career, giving up the late nights and just didn’t see the point in living in crappy apartments in gentrifying “hip” neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Bushwick anymore. So I made the move southward toward Park Slope, eventually ending up in Prospect Heights, where I’ve lived for the last seven years. When I made the move to my current apartment, a friend told me something I’ve thought of ever since: “This is a really nice place to live, but you need to go to the city if you want to have a good meal.”

This of course wasn’t totally true: the center part of the borough is still Brooklyn, and there were more than enough places to get good bagels, coffee, Jamaican patties and slices of pizza. But, yes, finding a few decent sit-downs for dinner proved difficult.

And then Franny’s moved from their original spot on Flatbush, which they had occupied since 2004, to a place three minutes from my apartment. The wait to get a table at the Neapolitan-style pizza spot usually stretched late into the night if you didn’t snag a reservation weeks in advance, but it was worth it. As Hannah Goldfield at The New Yorker put it, “The food at Franny’s was so exceptional that everyone wanted to eat there — from the people who lived in the apartment upstairs, to Alice Waters and Danny Meyer, to Patrick Stewart.”

I’d say a quote like that would lead one to believe things were changing in my ‘hood, but I should mention that Goldfield wrote that after Franny’s announced in 2017 that it was closing up shop. Somewhat suddenly, I should add. The part of Brooklyn where Prospect Heights touches up with Park Slope on one side and Crown Heights on the other seemed like it was back to square one. So when Joe Campanale (formerly of L’Artusi, Dell’anima, Anfora) and chef Erin Shambura announced they were taking over the space with a restaurant called Fausto, it felt like a reprieve, that at least it wasn’t turning into another bank or gym. There was, however, a catch:

“We felt like it would do a disservice to the space and to the legacy to make inferior pizzas cause that’s what we would do if we were to try and make pizza,” Campanale tells InsideHook over coffee at nearby Hungry Ghost. “It would not be as good as Franny’s, so let’s do what we’re good at. And we’ve kept those great pizza ovens and we use them for entrees and for vegetables.”

What you get when you go to Fausto, however, is something that is a rarity these days in New York City: warmth. While the wine list is outstanding (Campanale has been named a Food & Wine Sommelier of the Year), and the food is always fresh (I tend to get at least three pastas for every two people when I go there, and the simple Little Gem salad is elevated to something exceptional — possibly my favorite dinner salad order in the city), Fausto is just a really nice place to go. The space is as inviting as the person who greets you at the door, and the service is always friendly, from the bar and waitstaff to Campanale himself, who you routinely see talking with guests. It’s my local spot, and I really couldn’t ask for anywhere more perfect to have so close to home.

“I’m sure I’m not unique in this, but the first thing is to hire really nice people who care about taking care of other people, who are compassionate in some sort of way and then the third requisite would have to be have some curiosity for food and beverage, they don’t have to be experts, but they have to have some curiosity,” Campanale says.

Joe Campanale (Courtesy of Liz Clayman)

There’s a food renaissance happening in the little corner of the world Fausto occupies. While the Italian spot falls on the Park Slope side of Flatbush, walk across the street to Grand Army Plaza, take a left on Vanderbilt and walk up a couple of blocks, and you’re in Prospect Heights. You’re also probably at the door of the place that helped really put the area on the food radar: Olmsted.

Called “The hottest restaurant in Brooklyn” not long after it opened in 2016, Omlsted doesn’t share a neighborhood name with Fausto, and the dishes chef Greg Baxtrom and his team might not share an appreciation for a specific country’s cuisine the way Fausto excels at Italian. But there’s a similar amount of care for both the product and the customers it serves that sets it apart. The food is incredible, yes, but the service is indelible, and that’s a trend you notice in the little pocket of Brooklyn where Fausto and Olmsted reside.

What Fausto and Olmsted also have in common is expansion. While other neighborhoods might have seemed like attractive options for second restaurants, the owners stayed local: Baxtrom opening up the French and Japanese-inspired yakatori spot Maison Yaki this past spring, and Campanale opening up the wine bar LaLou just a few blocks away, on Vanderbilt. When you go into either, you’re bound to see an equal mix of locals who live nearby, and people who have made the trip from other parts of Brooklyn and New York City to eat. There’s a neighborhood feel you don’t get in a lot of parts of the bustling city, and it goes all the way to the people who work in the restaurants.

“What’s a nice surprise to me is how many people who work at the restaurant live in the neighborhood,” Campanale says. “I’ve never experienced that anywhere I’ve worked before. I know our servers see our regulars walking down the street and say ‘Hi’ to them, and I think that really goes a long way to building the community. Like the people who work in the restaurant have a lot of ownership over it as well, because they feel like it’s part of their neighborhood.”

Even though you can’t technically say Fausto is part of Prospect Heights (by a matter of feet), it is part of a small boom that the 11238 zip code is experiencing. Walk a few feet from Olmsted or LaLou, and you can grab a sandwich at the little speciality store R&D Foods; right across the street from there you can brave the line to get some of the best ice cream in the entire city at Ample Hills; nearby James should show up on every list of the best burgers in the city; walk a block up to Washington Ave. and not only can you get perfect pancakes at the iconic diner Tom’s, but the patty melt at Meme’s Diner is one of the best things between bread you’ll find in all of Brooklyn. And just like its counterparts on Vanderbilt, the vibe is always good and the service is always friendly and engaging — it’s one of the funnest places to eat I can think of. Walk in the other direction, towards the Brooklyn Museum, and Oxalis, with its veggie-heavy menu (note: not vegetarian, just creative with what’s in season, which is always better than another pile of beef or some new creative way to use bacon) is now a contender for best new neighborhood restaurant after moving past a one-star review from Pete Wells. Get brunch there, or do dinner and stop off for a drink at Tooker Alley, which has sort of flown under the radar over the past few years despite being one of the best cocktail bars in Brooklyn.

And that’s hardly scratching the surface. Go in any direction and you’ll find late-night Mexican food topped with kimchi, Jamaican food another block away at Glady”s, a number of bars and pretty much anything else your heart desires at the food hall, Berg’n.

The story of Brooklyn as the cool place to live or explore is old news. The borough has had its share of areas overflowing with restaurants and bars, from Williamsburg to Carroll Gardens, and even Brighton Beach or Sunset Park, where you can get the best Russian or Chinese food in the city. But what sets apart this little cluster of streets that’s mostly concentrated in Prospect Heights isn’t just the food — it’s the friendly demeanor with which they serve it. And that’s what keeps the locals coming back.