Loving New York bagels sometimes means loving to complain about the state of New York bagels. More than 40 years ago, the late Mimi Sheraton lamented that the city’s bagels had become “culinary namby-pambies … soft and snowy white instead of gray, dense and toughly chewy.” Her grievances were more severe by 2011, when she told a New York Times writer that the state of the bagel was simply “deplorable.” Since then, it’s become so bad that some people are willing to say, on the record, that there might even be better bagels in Connecticut or California.
One person who does not necessarily long for the bagels of yesteryear is Joey Scalabrino, who was raised on H& H, Murray’s Bagels, and Pick-a-Bagel. “I grew up only knowing one kind of bagel ever, and then I got older and realized it hurt my stomach when I ate it,” he says. So he started baking his own, keeping them old-fashioned in method — rolling by hand, boiling before baking — while “trying to make a lighter one that was easier to eat and texturally satisfying.”
To be clear, Scalabrino never set out to make a better bagel, merely one that stood out from the crowd. During the pandemic, he and his business partner Mike Fadem were thinking about other ways to bring people into their then-new Williamsburg pizzeria, Leo. They had the bakers, they had the oven: Why not bagels? They started selling them there in 2020, before going all in during the summer of 2022 when they launched Apollo Bagels as a pop-up at Fanelli’s. (“I’d always been enamored with the soup window,” Scalabrino laughs.) The bagels are crispy and chewy on the outside, baked to a shade of deep brown, with little blackened patches. And, as one recent fan put it, they’ve got “a good fluff-to-crunch ration.” Made of sourdough, they’re less dense than they look, bubbly on the outside with an airy interior.
Now, after building Apollo’s name through a series of pop-ups — in New York, Paris, Montreal, and elsewhere — Scalabrino and Fadem are giving Apollo a permanent home at 242 East 10th Street. The 800-square-foot storefront is divided by a long counter for ordering. Seating is outside only, and the menu will remain tight: Sandwiches included smoked salmon with capers, red onion, and dill; whitefish salad; and a summertime tomato with olive oil. (Bagels will also be sold by the half-dozen and dozen, straight from the oven, with the standard spreads like cream cheese available, as well. Prices for the East Village store are still being worked out, but at Leo, they range from $6 for a bagel with cream cheese to $17 for a smoked salmon sandwich. A dozen bagels there go for $36.) Coffee can be ordered hot or iced.
The duo has no designs on becoming the next Barney Greengrass. Instead, they say the closest comparisons would be businesses like Taqueria Ramírez and Los Tacos No. 1. “It’s validating to see a place that is operating at this incredibly high level — and which is really busy — keep it so simple,” Fadem says. Scalabrino adds, “They don’t have all these things that they could have a million of.”
With Apollo, Scalabrino isn’t interested in faux history or approximating the look of a beloved institution: “You can’t replicate it — they have generations of fans, and lifelong customers.” Instead, he and Fadem want to build a spot that can become the next institution on its own merits. As Scalabrino says, “We want Apollo to be the favorite place of young people when they get older.”
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