It is always comforting to know that there is an excellent pizza place in the neighborhood, and Harlem Pizza Co. might be the perfect one. As owner, Alper Uyanik so aptly put it, "It is always worth one trip and then you can decide for yourself - take a chance, we think it's worth it." The pizzas are made to order in their brick oven by Chef Jonathan Shepard with innovative names like Hot Bird (roasted chicken, fresh mozzarella, arugula and hot sauce) and The Hangover (sausage, broccoli rabe, tomato, taleggio and pecorino cheese, and basil).
Alper opened a few small cafes and restaurants before transitioning to finance for some twenty years. But, in 2014, he decided to go back into hospitality and pursue his love and passion for "serving food with integrity." Having lived on 118th Street since 2008, Alper felt that he knew the area well, and, at the time, felt that there was "literally nothing in food or other retail shops, besides the old-time favorites." He could never find "other alternatives" for dining nearby. With the development and continued Renaissance of Harlem, restaurants began to arrive, but Alper did not believe that the quality was necessarily coming with it.
When I asked, "why pizza?" Alper replied quickly telling me that the current location that he occupies was a pizza place, so why not pursue this concept. The difference, however, is that it was originally New York style pizza sold by the slice from a wood burning oven. "The model was wrong. We cook our pies in less than a minute, and this is how an oven like this should be used." With high end ingredients including fresh mozzarella and burrata made by a fourth-generation family in Brooklyn, Alper and Chef Jonathan pride themselves in all that goes into their pies. The space is also filled with their personalities. A warm, friendly vibe, with outdoor seating in the warmer months, and the thought provoking pictures hanging on the walls by world renown photographer, Chuck Fishman.
Watching the incarnations over the past several years while living in Harlem, Alper and Jonathan then made the decision to open Harlem Burger Company on the corner of 118th Street and Fredrick Douglass Blvd, where they have been serving quality burgers since mid 2016. Their hope is to create a brand out of these two restaurants with a view to open other locations in the future. "We are just taking what we know, adding our passion and hoping we can make it work."
My first encounter with Amy Ruth's, a Southern style restaurant in the finest tradition, was during my walk while documenting every place on 116th. The street is enormous, with many delis, convenience stores, hair salons and barber shops, but tucked between these are some marvelous hidden gems. Amy Ruth's is certainly one of them, although, "hidden" is debatable given that the restaurant usually has a line out the door. Once inside, I discovered that the space is endless. There are some smaller nooks, an upstairs area that is open on the weekends, and then a large catering hall for private events.The second time I visited Amy Ruth's, late on a Saturday morning, I brought my husband and friends, as I needed them to enjoy the same experience that I had had. I loved every aspect of this restaurant. From the star-shaped paper lanterns hanging on the ceiling to the murals portraying well known African American figures - including President Obama, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Serena and Venus Williams - to the variety of ages and cultures sitting at the tables, and, of course, to the excellent Southern cuisine, the restaurant offers a memorable dining spot for everyone.The opening of Amy Ruth's in 1998 was inspired by Carl Redding's time spent down south visiting his grandmother during the summer months. He chose to stand by her side day in and day out as she prepared meal after meal for her adoring family. Years later, he decided to pay tribute to this wonderful woman by opening up his own restaurant and naming it after his beloved grandmother.This warm family feeling is transmitted to guests as soon as they arrive. Waiting to enter, we began speaking with some of the patrons who were raving about the food. I learned that they queue up almost every weekend for the chicken and waffles - and every other waffle combination imaginable. Needless to say, our meal also consisted primarily of waffles, most of us opting for the variety of fruit toppings, and it was perfect.
Crepe Master opened in November 2017. After a trip to Japan, owner Fumi wanted to bring the uniqueness of the country's crepes to Harlem. Unlike French crepes, Japanese crepes are traditionally served in a cone. They are a classic street food dish in populous cities throughout the country. Top recommendations include Chocobana, a sweet crepe comprised of banana, crushed chocolates, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, custard cream, and almonds, the Suzette, a simple butter, sugar, lemon crepe, or any savory crepe with tofu.
Bright colors abound inside the semi-covered market on West 116th Street - and it has been this way since 1994 when vendors gathered under one roof to sell their African wares. From traditional fabrics, and handmade clothing, to jewelry, accessories, and wood carvings, to native instruments, the collection at Malcolm Shabazz represents numerous countries including Nigeria, Senegal, Gambia, Ghana, Mali and Kenya. I found the experience to be exhilarating as I strolled through the stalls carrying on conversations with the vendors. There is a true camaraderie amongst them that is palpable.