If you’d asked me, a couple of weeks ago, how I felt about caponata, the agrodolce (sweet-and-sour) Sicilian relish that is almost always made with eggplant, plus tomato, aromatics, olives, and capers, I would have shrugged. When had I last eaten it? On sad crostini, cold and clumpy? Ask me now and I’ll tell you that the other day I had caponata for lunch—not as a condiment or even a side dish, just straight caponata, directly from a plastic deli container, spectacular.
Meatballs in red sauce are always on the menu.
The caponata was made by Zahra Tangorra, the chef behind the late, beloved Cobble Hill Italian restaurant Brucie, who now operates a takeout operation called Zaza Lazagna. Her interpretation featured butternut squash instead of eggplant, plus white sweet potato, cauliflower, San Marzano tomatoes, sage, rosemary, raisins, Castelvetrano and Kalamata olives, and red onion—surprising but deftly layered in both texture and flavor, an apt example of her freewheeling, intuitive cooking style.
A recent salad special featured romaine, radicchio, shaved Parmesan, parsley, and Pecorino-crusted croutons in a thick dressing somewhere between a Caesar and a Green Goddess.
Before Brucie, Tangorra had never worked in a kitchen. In 2006, after art school and a stint as an Urban Outfitters window designer, she was touring through California with a group of musician friends when their bus plunged over a cliff. Incredibly, everyone survived. Tangorra was moved to reconsider her life. She loved to cook, and with settlement money from the accident she opened Brucie.
When she closed the restaurant, in 2016, “we were kind of at the height of our popularity,” she told me recently, but she was feeling burned out, and transitioned to consulting and catering. At Brucie, she had offered a charming service: B.Y.O. pan, and they’d bake you a lasagna to eat at home. In November, 2020, her friends at Shelsky’s, a smoked-fish shop on Court Street, agreed to let her use their kitchen for Zaza Lazagna, to prep heat-and-serve lasagnas (sold whole, in disposable aluminum trays, and by the slice), plus other comfort foods (including meatballs and enormous loaves of tomato-butter garlic bread), for pickup from the shop on Friday evenings.
Zaza’s garlic bread is made with a seeded Italian loaf from Caputo’s Bake Shop, on Court Street, sliced lengthwise and spread with tomato butter.
Every week in the colder months, Tangorra and her business partner, a former Brucie cook named Ryan Crossman, make a classic meatless lasagna, with red sauce, ricotta, mozzarella, and provolone, and a special lasagna, often inspired by pasta dishes that don’t travel as well (Alfredo, Amatriciana), or by, say, the Super Bowl, as in the case of a recent spinach-and-artichoke variety. That one anchored a loose game-day theme, rounded out by Negroni ribs, braised with whole mandarins in gin, Campari, and vermouth, and Buffalo-chicken-stuffed shells, laced with blue cheese and dill.
To compensate for the loss of dining-room atmosphere, Tangorra and Crossman find ways to be playful, from a lively Web site—the whole classic lasagna advertised with an image of Garfield the cat, a pint of Sexy Slaw with a still-life of vegetables arranged to look like a reclining nude—to the handful of candy (say, Andes chocolate mints) that gets tossed in with orders. Each Friday, they solicit pairings from Brooklyn Wine Exchange, across the street from Shelsky’s, and pour tastes as they distribute the food; if a bottle strikes your fancy, you can pop over and buy it at a discount.
Fudge cake is among the changing dessert offerings.
A few weeks ago, my Zaza haul included a paper cup wearing a skirt of fringed tinsel, like a go-go dancer; beneath its lid I found a foil firework cocktail pick sticking out of an Aperol-spritz cake that could only be described as groovy, glazed in a tie-dye pattern of pinks, its glossy crumb fragrant with olive oil. When we spoke, Tangorra mentioned Raymond Carver’s short story “A Small, Good Thing,” in which a young couple seeks comfort after a tragedy; a guest on “Processing,” a podcast that she co-hosts with her mother, a bereavement therapist, had recommended it. “Sometimes just doing that small, good thing for people—you don’t know what they’re going through,” Tangorra said. “It could go a long way.” (Dishes $10-$32. Whole lasagna starts at $40.) ♦