The New York City neighborhood of Harlem, like many urban American neighborhoods, has seen robust development in recent years, including the opening of a wide variety of restaurants.
But Alper and Jeannie Uyanik, who moved to Harlem in 2008, were still missing a few things, and they worked to address that deficit by opening two restaurants: Harlem Pizza Co. in 2014 and Harlem Burger Co. last year
“We always said with friends in the building and family, ‘Harlem needs a good pizza place, or diner, or bagel place, or burger place,’” said Alper Uyanik, who previously headed the New York trading desk for a Turkish investment bank.
Uyanik had owned restaurants before — a small ice cream shop and a French bistro called Café Soleil in Midtown Manhattan, which he sold in the 1990s — and he knew the business was hard. So involved other people in his building and took them on as small investors.
“They’re [also] invested in Harlem,” he said. “They live here. We all have kids. Everyone orders pizza all the time. … So everyone wrote a check that wasn’t going to break the bank if we went belly-up in a few months.”
Uyanik had an operational background and fiscal discipline, but he didn’t know how to make pizza. Although the restaurant had a Neapolitan pizza oven, he didn’t want to make traditional Neapolitan pizza, which has a soft center.
“That’s a knife-and-fork pizza,” he said. “I didn’t want a customer to get a pizza delivered five or 10 blocks and it was a wet napkin.”
Fortunately, chef Jonathan Shepard answered Uyanik’s Craig’s List ad.
Shepard has a diverse culinary background. He studied at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City before working at Nobu in Midtown Manhattan. He went on to work on a cruise ship in Hawaii and then at a restaurant in Garrison, N.Y., under chef Eric Gabrynowicz. On his days off, Shepard came into the city to work at David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar.
Shepard said Momofuku offered him a full-time job, but he didn’t want to leave the Hudson Valley.
“Everything came from so close to us,” he said. “We’d literally have a chicken for dinner that we had the morning omelet from. We had the best heirloom tomatoes that never saw a refrigerator. … But then you get a little tired. You can’t live in a little town forever.”
Shepard went on to work with Manhattan restaurateur Donatella Arpaia, who was opening a Neapolitan pizza place called Donatella. She sent Shepard to Naples to learn the craft.
He was executive sous chef at Donatella for a year, and then became executive chef until the restaurant closed. After that, work took him to Spain and back to New York City. But he always missed pizza.
Then, Shepard met the Uyaniks and opened Harlem Pizza Co. with them.
Shepard said the dough of the pizza he’s currently making is Neapolitan, “but the way we top it is different,” spreading more of the ingredients to the outside to give more structure to the center.
He also uses just the flesh of the tomatoes, not the juice, resulting in a less soggy pie that suits New Yorkers’ palates better than traditional Neapolitan pizza.
The toppings are different, too. Shepard makes the classic Margherita, with tomato, fresh mozzarella, basil, Pecorino cheese and olive oil, as well as classic white and mushroom pizzas, all customizable.
Alper Uyanik’s Turkish heritage is reflected in a pizza topped with beef sausage, called sujuk, along with tomato, smoked mozzarella, basil, pecorino and olive oil.
Other specialties are The Hangover, with sweet fennel sausage, broccoli rabe, tomato, Taleggio cheese, basil, pecorino and olive oil. Another is topped with merguez lamb sausage, tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, goat cheese, shishito peppers, black garlic and basil. Prices for whole pies range from $12 to $17.
The ingredients are small-batch and often local, including the fresh mozzarella, which comes from a fifth-generation producer in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The restaurant wasn’t an immediate success, as the area is known more for West African food than pizza, but foot traffic is high, Uyanik said. After a slow winter, business began to pick up. The restaurant currently sells around 120 pizzas a day, plus salads and some beer and wine.
Harlem Burger Co. was a success almost overnight. Although the space appeared to be cursed, with restaurant after restaurant closing, Jeannie Uyanik observed that the problem might have been operational rather than geographic, as she had ordered from the former business when it was a chicken wing place.
“It was so awful,” she said. “Not only was it awful, they forgot half the order. Alper said, ‘I could do so much better.’”
Alper Uyanik said the neighborhood wasn’t only in need of good burgers, but of restaurants that weren’t full-service.
“Especially on Frederick Douglas [Boulevard], you didn’t have a walk in, walk out restaurant,” he said.
To give the restaurant some Harlem flare, they hired local graffiti artist Rammer Martínez Sánchez to add urban design elements to the space, including its logo.
Among the elements that reflect Shepard’s culinary background is the “company sauce,” based on a soubise — a slow-cooked onion sauce — mixed with a little ketchup and Dijon mustard, paprika, cayenne pepper, garlic and sherry.
It was an instant success.
“The first two weeks, we got so slapped, I can’t tell you,” Alper Uyanik said, with about 250 covers a day. The average check is around $15.
The Company Burger, with Company Sauce, lettuce, tomato and pickle, is the best seller. Other popular burgers include the Westside Cowgirl, with Swiss cheese, bacon, tempura onions, barbecue sauce, lettuce, tomato and an over-easy egg, and the El Barrio, served in a tortilla with Oaxaca cheese, guacamole, lettuce and jalapeños.
Also available is a fish sandwich with miso-marinated cod, reflecting Shepard’s stint at Nobu; a Confit Grilled Cheese sandwich made with pork confit, Swiss cheese and cranberry chipotle sauce on pumpernickel bread; and the B-lo Hot Blu Sub, made with fried chicken fingers, Frank’s Red Hot sauce, lettuce, tomato, onion and blue cheese. Hot dogs, fries, milkshakes and chicken wings also are available, along with two varieties of macaroni and cheese. For dessert: ricotta zeppoli with cinnamon sugar.
Alper Uyanik said he’s now looking for opportunities to expand.
“I think we’ve got two great concepts,” he said, adding that the restaurants’ name has broad appeal.
“Harlem, with its history and current pop culture, and the ups and downs it’s been through, has a lot of cachet. That would be the idea, to look at ways to multiply this,” he said.
Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary