For the second installment of Eat Play Shop, we headed out to Coney Island and Brighton Beach…in February. Some may call that masochistic or maybe just weird, but we like a good challenge. Anyone can hit the beach in summer but in the spirit of out-of-town adventure, we decided to do the crowd-busting winter version of this typically warm-weather destination. No Nathan’s, no Cyclone.
Instead we started with lunch at Totonno’s (1524 Neptune Ave.) one of the oldest pizzerias in the country, which was opened by a former Lombardi’s employee in 1924. Although a 2009 fire destroyed the original, it was authentically rebuilt on a desolate strip of auto body shops and looks and tastes virtually the same as it did a century ago. The “waitress” with a bad dye job yells your order to the big-bellied pizza maker who then yells at customers waiting for a table to get out of the way. And when they run out of pizza dough for the day, it’s closing time.
But the pizza is exquisite—crispy, thin, slightly charred crust with a tangy sauce and just the right amount of cheese. Quite possibly the best old school, coal-oven-baked pizza we’ve had in New York. Also each pie (no slices here) is made to order so expect to wait at least 15 minutes for the hand rolled dough and freshly sliced mozzarella. The sausage is the delicious fatty crumbly kind, and the food is served on styrofoam plates with plastic forks (which proved enormously kid-friendly). And although it’s only pizza here, there are a surprising amount of beverages in the wall-fridge including orange cream soda and a decent red wine in mini bottles. But you’ll have to fetch those yourself.
Warmed by our lunch, we headed over to the New York Aquarium on Surf Avenue. Housed in a campus of several small buildings around a courtyard, it’s sort of like visiting a community college for underwater creatures. The first thing we saw was an impressively close 700-pound sea lion. Our one-and-a-half-year-old immediately stuck his nose to the glass, shouting “Dada! Whoa! Mama! Whoa!” The tiny sea lions were also a hit as was the massive prehistoric turtle gliding up and down its tank. It’s not a fancy place but it’s great for kids—plenty of viewing options within close proximity to each other and very little explanatory text, which makes for a lot of easy oohing and aahing. And afterward there’s a nice gift store with stuffed sea lions and cute bath toys with which to remember everyone by.
We ended our day trip in nearby Brighton Beach, aka Little Russia, whose main drag sells a lot of absurdly decorative sweatsuits but also some incredible Slavic delicacies. The three-floor M&I International (249 Brighton Beach Ave.) is packed with Russian-speaking locals buying pounds of smoked fish, cured pork meats, pickled vegetables and fresh bread. Don’t expect much in terms of service—servers work fast and speak only Russian. (The woman dishing pickles had to call in an English-speaking coworker to help us.) Upstairs are dollar pastries, chocolate and a small café. Down the street at a smaller shop called Food Haven (239 Brighton Beach Ave.), the goods are a little more refined and gentrified (gourmet prepared foods and English-labeled jars) although these guys make the best potato pancakes, which in addition to the herring and pickled cabbage we picked up at M&I, made a yummy picnic-like dinner at home. Who knows, maybe we’ll even return in summer and take that picnic to the beach.
Details: All the stops are mapped out here, and accessible by the D, F, N, Q to Stillwell Ave., the F, Q to West 8th St. and the Q to Ocean Parkway.
Totonno Pizzeria Napolitano, 1524 Neptune Avenue between W. 15th St and W 16th St., Coney Island, Open Wed.-Sun., noon-8 pm, cash only, (718) 372-8606
New York Aquarium, 602 Surf Avenue at W 8th St., Spring hours (through May 27): Mon.-Fri. 10 am-5 pm, Weekends 10:30 am-5:30 pm, Admission: $14.95 for adults, $11.95 for kids 3-12, (718) 265-3474
M & I International Foods, 249 Brighton Beach Avenue near Brighton 1st Pl., Daily 8 am-10 pm, (718) 615-1011
Food Haven, 239 Brighton Beach Avenue at Brighton 1st Pl., (718) 743-4700
Shana Liebman is a freelance writer living in Williamsburg with her husband and son.