Chef Zahra Tangorra’s Grub Street Diet
Chef Zahra Tangorra launched the Zaza Lazagna pop-up in the midst of the pandemic.
Illustration: Margalit Cutler
When she launched Zaza Lazagna in 2021 — offering weekly pickups of, yes, classic lasagna, as well as other Italian American comfort foods — chef Zahra Tangorra wanted to “bring some joy to the community,” she says. “I hope it did, but honestly it was the customers who saved me.” Either way, Tangorra (who previously ran the much-loved Court Street restaurant Brucie) found plenty of fans, and next month she’ll expand Zaza to include monthly three-course sit-down dinners. This week, while prepping the regular pickup, Tangorra managed to swing by some neighborhood staples — including Caputo’s and Frankies — as well as some Long Island favorites during a weekend back home.
Thursday, March 9
I had trouble sleeping, so I am awake at 5:30 a.m. and do some moderate-to-heavy panicking for an hour. Then I go for a run through Brooklyn Bridge Park and stop at East One Coffee on Court Street for my daily cup of java. I am saying “java” to make all of you uncomfortable straight out of the gate. I have coffee every morning from East One because I don’t really know how to make coffee and, at the very least, I don’t enjoy making coffee. I get a large drip with animal milk and I squirt in some simple syrup. I love the baristas at East One. They know my java order, and my java is there, ready for me as soon as they see me come in.
I chug the coffee on the walk back to my apartment. Upon returning home, I eat three kumquats and make a ginger-juice shot in an attempt to show some small sign of respect to my body, and then I’m out the door for work!
I operate a weekly Italian American pop-up called Zaza Lazagna that is a spinoff of my former restaurant, Brucie, kind of like Saved By The Bell: The College Years but drench it all in marinara. We moved our operations this year from the wonderful Shelsky’s of Brooklyn to the absolutely lovely Cobblestone Catering & Fine Foods.
I get in at ten, and my co-worker Zach is elbow deep in sourdough starter. They are shaking their head at me because I forgot to put away the Semolina dough tester they made the day before. We decide to bake it anyway to see what happens, and 40 minutes later we bear witness to the worst bread in human history. It looks like a Pet Rock and is as hard as one, too. They have to crack it open with a citrus juicer. It breaks apart after several whacks, and we taste it and decide it also tastes like a Pet Rock. I love Zach, and they make every day at work so much fun. I met them at East One, and they said they wanted to learn more about professional cooking, and I said, “I don’t know how professional I am, but I’ll teach you how to make caponata and meatballs and how to superglue your wounds together.”
I eat a scoop of Trader Joe’s Creamy Salted Peanut Butter right out of the jar with some honey and kosher salt. This is a secret single behavior of mine that I am now taking public, and it feels good.
I write our prep list. Zach will make cheddar buttermilk biscuits, chicken-pot-pie hand pies, coffee cake, sourdough pizza dough, and éclairs that are meant to be filled with pistachio pastry cream. I will make bean salad, cacio e pepe lasagna, stuffed cabbage, and Key-lime pie.
I order a bunch of sandwiches from Paisanos for Zach, myself, and some other people working at Cobblestone. We get a couple of Italian combos with hot peppers and a couple of American combos with Swiss cheese. I would have chosen American Cheese if it were just me, but I have a moment of shame and get Swiss to avoid being chastised. I eat a piece of the American and soak it in the dressing I made for the bean salad. Somewhere around 1 p.m., I remember to drink water.
Zach pipes the éclairs to my size recommendation and they get only three out of the whole batch of pâte à choux, so we wait patiently for comedy to ensue, which it does when the éclairs turn out to be the size of the sandwiches we ate for lunch. Zach suggests we make six-foot éclairs next week.
I get home at eight and realize I am very hungry, but also I have very little food in the house and even less enthusiasm to cook. I open a bottle of wine and work on a painting I recently started of Paulie and Christopher from the “Pine Barrens” episode of The Sopranos. I become too hungry and make a salad with arugula, tuna, red onion, pistachios, and some delicious red-wine vinegar my friend Maya made for me. She works for Louis/Dressner and makes this fab vinegar with leftover wine from tastings.
I have one more glass of wine, watch 30 minutes of Moonstruck, and go to bed. I have watched Moonstruck at least once a week for like the past ten years, which I realize makes me a serial killer, but I love Cher and Nic Cage and am a hopeless romantic, so sue me.
Friday, March 10
I wake up around seven and work on my menu for next week’s pop-up. It will be St. Patrick’s Day, so I contemplate an all-Irish menu, then realize this is not what people want from an Italian American pop-up, so I compromise with myself and put green lasagna on and decide we will do some fun at-the-door specials like shepherd’s-pie hand pies and clam chowder. Who knows, maybe I will even have Zach make some Irish soda bread so I can leave it out overnight and ruin it.
I have been feeling overwhelmed this week, and I’m really glad it’s Friday because Friday is our pickup day and I get to see all our sweet customers, and this comforts me. I get to work around noon. I have a small handful of trail mix I made, which is not trail mix at all: It consists of chocolate-covered pretzels, honey-roasted peanuts, sesame almonds, and candied clementines. If someone were to eat this on a hike, they would pass away, but it is quite delicious.
I make Sicilian pizzas, fry chicken, cut coffee cake, and pack up hand pies. I come to the harsh realization that the éclairs are simply too big; someone could get hurt. Instead, I toast them so we can grind them up for bread crumbs or something. My friend Ali gets to work around four to help me with the pop-up, and we eat a slice of Sicilian pizza and cannot believe how good it is. Sesame crust, babes.
We gossip while we pack the bags, and Ali sets up the specials table. We are a preorder pickup, but we also offer extras of our regular menu plus specials at the door, and this has really evolved into a huge part of our operation. The ultimate mission with Zaza, both in our work cooking and what we offer our customers, is to have fun, since life is wild and outrageously difficult at times.
We sip a tiny bit of wine after the rush. Pop-up ends at 7:30, and I grab some of what’s left for our family friend Kathie, who is battling cancer, and put the rest in the freezer. It’s raining out, so Ali offers to drive me home, and I greedily take advantage of her kindness by asking her to stop by Hibino on the way so I can pick up some sushi.
I get home and heat up miso soup with some spinach I add. I drizzle some chile crisp on tuna and avocado and pour myself a canned old-fashioned. I update our website for the next day’s menu and fall asleep on the couch.
Saturday, March 11
I rise from the dead at 6 a.m. like Nosferatu and go for a short run, then grab a few things from Union Market to make juice, then onward to Caputo’s bakery on Court Street. I am headed to Long Island to see my parents, and my mother has requested an extra-large seeded loaf.
I swing by East One for my morning java. They aren’t open yet, but one of the baristas sees me waiting outside and brings me a coffee the way I like it OMG.
Get home, make a juice with carrot, celery, ginger, lemon, and spinach, then rush to get ready so I don’t miss my train to Long Island. I grab a handful of kumquats and away I go!
On the train, there’s a Long Island dad guy eating chips and salsa from a jar. Worst food to eat on a train? Undoubtedly delicious but super-risky. I tear off the end of the Caputo’s loaf. Crumbs and sesame seeds get everywhere.
My mom and stepdad pick me up at the train station in Huntington, and I apologize and tell her I fell asleep on the train and when I woke up a chunk of bread had disappeared. We head to our favorite spot in town, Parea, for amazing Greek food. We have been coming here for years. It used to be called the Mediterranean Snack Bar, but it switched owners a few years back. Same menu.
We get a big Greek salad to share and a side of falafel patties (the shape of a hamburger and very good) with a side of yogurt and tahini. The hummus is chunky and drenched in tahini with tomatoes and pepperoncini perched on top like gargoyles.
My friend Catherine drives out from Sayville, and we go thrifting. Catherine needs a post-shopping snack, so we pop over to Little Vincent’s for the best plain slice you can put into a human mouth. They are famous for giving the option to add a fist full of cold cheese to your slice, which I love in theory but have never partaken in for I am more of an “extra sauce” person. Give me a ladle full of cold sauce on a paper plate and I might just marry you.
I get home, and my mom is just back from the “beauty parlor,” as she calls it, and she looks so beautiful with her new haircut. She does a little haircut dance because she is Earth’s cutest person and then whips up a batch of chicken soup for her best friend, Kathie, and rolls some of her famous spanakopita and apple strudel to give to some other friends who need some cheering up. My mom is a bereavement therapist, but she used to be a chef, and she’s always had the biggest, most beautiful heart as well as the most sublime spanakopita.
Sunday, March 12
My mom wakes me up at 7 a.m., which is really 6 a.m. because of daylight-saving time, by crawling into my bed for a snuggle. She says we are having bagels and lox with all the fixings for breakfast, and I think this sounds fun even though I don’t really eat breakfast. We go to grab a java at Southdown Coffee in Huntington.
We drive over to Northport, the town where I grew up, to get the good bagels at Country Hot Bagels. We get home, and my parents scoop theirs out. I am not classically a scooper, but I feel peer pressured, so I pinch a few nugs out, but I realize this just isn’t me. I tear off just a small piece and put goat-cream cheese, onion, capers, and tomato on it because I’m really not hungry. This makes my mom upset, as it would any Jewish mother, but I just gotta be me.
I get back to Brooklyn in the early afternoon and eat a few kumquats, then head out for a walk around the neighborhood, stopping for a second java at East One. I am hoping that the incredible tamale stand is still open at the Carroll Gardens farmers’ market, but it’s done for the day, so I grab a sourdough baguette at Caputo’s and eat the pope’s nose as I walk. I bump into my friend Gail Simmons and chat for a minute, and she is cute as ever. Love a good bump-in!
I get home and eat some endives with a piece of cheese and dip it in Dijon. As a single person, I dip a lot of food right into the jar. Maybe married people do this as well, but if that is true, don’t tell me. I like to think of it as one of the silver linings to dying alone.
Dinner rolls around, and I walk up to Frankies 457 with my friend Joanna Goddard, the charming and brilliant force behind the blog Cup of Jo. Frankies is a constant. We sit at the corner bar and drink sparkling rosé and do some top-quality gabbing. We follow up the sparkling rosé with a few glasses of a delicious fiano and dive into the classics: ricotta crostini with honey; escarole salad with red onions, walnuts, and Parmigiano; eggplant marinara; and cavatelli with hot sausage, brown butter, and sage. I shake extra Pecorino and chile flakes on top because I am a maximalist.
Monday, March 13
I wake up at 7 a.m. and go for a long run. Swing by East One for a java (last time, I promise).
I eat a pink grapefruit, which to me is peak living. Nothing gives me as much joy as sinking my teeth into a wedge and slurping up the juice. It makes me feel like a lion eating a gazelle, feral and powerful. I bask in the glory of my conquest, and then it’s time to record my podcast, which is on Heritage Radio. I miss going to the studio to record, but my co-host and bestie, Nicole Bailey, moved to Indiana during the pandemic, and the weekly commute to Roberta’s is just too far for her.
When I’m done recording, I eat a Vista Hermosa flour tortilla that I char over the burner and fill with lettuce, mayo, and Crystal hot sauce because I don’t really have anything else in the house. I remember I have some cacio e pepe puff things from Trader Joe’s, so I shove a few of those in there. This sandwich is rude to sandwich-kind, but it’s pouring rain, and I’d eat my houseplants before going outside.
At around 4 p.m., I dunk a celery stick into a jar of chunky salted peanut butter and crunch on it while working on my painting. By the time I enjoy the final nibble, Paulie has his wing tips!
I meet my best friend Becky at Leo for dinner. Leo is one of our faves. The incomparable Susan Thompson greets us at the door with a big hug, and we sit down and order two negronis. We start with olives and sesame-seed focaccia with a perfect squish of whipped ricotta. You can braise and baste and torture and tweeze, but no matter what you do to food, nothing will ever be better than good bread, and this focaccia is exceptional.
Soon our Caesar arrives, and I tuck right in with my hands. The Lord gave us fingers so we can eat salad with them.
We get a San Giuseppe pizza, which has spicy sausage, tomato, onion, olives, and provolone. Personally, I am a margherita gal, but I picked this one because I know Becky likes toppings and I like Becky.
For a moment, I think how, when this week started, I could barely eat anything because I was having a rough time, and now I’m here with my best friend at our favorite place and we are laughing. So I cry a little because I am a giant baby, apparently, but also because everything changes throughout a week, and a year, and a life, and it feels good to remember that.