The One Who Keeps the Book New York
How to Get Into Foul Witch, and What to Expect While You’re There
In the early years of Roberta’s, the restaurant felt like a wild space where anything might happen behind that cinder block wall in Bushwick. You could order a banana hammock pizza and go home with a stranger or sit down to one of the city’s best tasting menus.
Roberta’s has grown up a lot since it opened in 2008. The team debuted the acclaimed tasting counter Blanca in 2012 — putting it on hiatus early in the pandemic — and expanded their pizza operations to places like Los Angeles and the freezer section of Whole Foods.
This winter, chef Carlo Mirarchi and partner Brandon Hoy opened their latest project: Foul Witch in the East Village. Overnight, it became one of the toughest Resys to get. The “spooky Italian” spot, as the team calls it, offers up impeccably executed pastas, housemade bread and 36-hour cultured butter, wines that have been cellaring at Blanca, and a drum and bass soundtrack.
Leslie Vinyard, the group’s service director who joined the team 13 years ago, says she wants all of the group’s restaurants to feel “of Roberta’s.” And Foul Witch does. There are glimpses of the ethos of the restaurant’s early days that feel invigorating.
In this edition of “The One Who Keeps The Book,” she shares how to get one of those coveted seats at the bar or a table, what to order, and why she won’t be selling you any of that butter to take home.
Note: This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
How to Get In
Resy: Your reservations drop 14 days in advance at midnight. How quickly do they fill up?
Vinyard: Pretty fast. But then there’s a ton of fluctuation. People immediately snatch the reservation and then they cancel it. As soon as a reservation is canceled, though, it’s snatched up again.
How long is your Notify list?
On a Saturday night, it’s around 1,400. It’s wild. I remember in the early days of Blanca, we had to scramble to fill cancellations.
Do you hold any seats for walk-ins?
I hold a couple of tables for walk-ins. Typically, if you get there right at 5 p.m., you can get a seat at the bar or one of the tables I’ve held. If you show up at 5:30 p.m. or 6 p.m. and get your name on the list, I’ll probably get to you by like 7 p.m.
But, as the night goes on, some reservations have stayed longer than we allotted, and I’m having to use those tables as wiggle room. It really feels better in there when it’s full, so I don’t like to hold tables — not just for money reasons, but for vibe reasons.
What if someone really wants to get a Resy?
The earlier the better. Set an alarm or get on that Notify list right away.
Plan Ahead: Reservations drop 14 days in advance at midnight.
The Layout: Foul Witch has roughly 50 seats. There’s a six-seat bar, lots of two-tops, some four-tops, and one large table that can seat up to eight.
Pro Tip: “The Notify list is worth it. People are constantly changing their mind. It’s not an impossible table to get,” service director Leslie Vinyard explains.
Walk On In: Arrive at 5 p.m. to grab one of the bar seats. Sundays seem to be the easiest day to get a table, and Mondays have become a de facto industry night.
Must-Orders: Fire & Ice (stracciatella over ‘nduja), veal tortellini with amaretto, garganelli with braised goat, polenta sea urchin, and whole roasted turbot.
What to Expect While You’re There
In 2018, Foul Witch by Blanca popped up at Frieze. Was that a test run?
It wasn’t meant to be a test run; it was created for Frieze. This version evolved over the pandemic. [Foul Witch] was originally going to be a wine bar, but it’s much more of a restaurant now. I don’t know how we got from point A to point B. That’s really from Carlo and Brandon’s late-night conversations. I’m not privy to a lot of those things — thank God.
Tell me about the name. The website says it comes from a line in the 1985 Ridley Scott fantasy film “Legend”: “Black as midnight, black as pitch, blacker than the foulest witch.” But I’ve also heard it’s a reference to “The Tempest.”
People give us all this credit and say it’s from Shakespeare. It’s really not. It’s from a Tom Cruise movie. It was meant to be spooky and witchy. In the bathroom, there are spooky images on the wall — those are actually from the original Foul Witch. We literally don’t throw anything away.
What’s the best seat in the house?
I think the bar. There’s also this one table that seems like it wouldn’t be the best — it’s in the middle of all of the two-tops and it’s up against the wall — but a lot of people have told me that that’s their favorite because it feels cozy.
Tell me a bit about the menu.
We’ve started saying it’s “spooky Italian.” It’s got Italian influences because of Carlo’s background and the wood fire is a trademark for us because of Roberta’s, but we’ve consciously not put pizza on the menu here. We’re pretty protein heavy. We’ve got some dry-aged steaks coming up — I tasted one the other day that was aged 240 days.
What are some of the must-order items from the menu? Will it change?
Everyone seems to get the Fire & Ice, which is stracciatella and ‘nduja, and the veal tortellini — we sell out of it a lot. The goat garganelli is one of my favorite pastas. The polenta with sea urchin is insane. We’re trying to keep the menu pretty focused, so that everything on there has a place. It will change, because we’ll get bored, but we’re trying to focus on getting everything perfect.
People give us all this credit and say [the restaurant name is] from Shakespeare. It’s really not. It’s from a Tom Cruise movie.
Bread and butter is sent to every table, which feels rare these days.
Carlo just wanted to be generous. People keep trying to buy the butter — it’s a 36-hour culture. We don’t have enough, so I can’t sell it to you. Because we have so many restaurants on the East Coast now, we’re able to have a lot of our stuff like the butter produced in an in-house commissary in Bushwick.
Can you tell me a bit about the wine list? I love that one of your servers described a bottle as tasting like a Jolly Rancher.
During the pandemic we closed Blanca, so that whole wine list has been cellaring. We transferred over some of it, so we have a lot of bottles that you just don’t see anymore. But we didn’t want to have an entirely old Blanca list.
Jamie [Schlicht, our wine director], is constantly thinking about the list. There are a lot of bottles that we only have one of; it’s kind of cool for wine people.
It feels like there’s a bit of the vibe of early-days-Roberta’s at Foul Witch.
I definitely think it’s its own thing, but all of our restaurants should feel of Roberta’s. I always said that about Blanca: You should be able to see Roberta’s in the service style somewhere. One thing that we’re hyper aware of is adapting to the neighborhood.
The music is a big part of that at Foul Witch.
You love it or you hate it. We’re mostly playing drum and bass — we wanted it to feel like the neighborhood. Brandon and his wife spent a lot of time in the late ‘90s, early 2000’s drum and bass era of the East Village. So, the music was a conscious choice, and we enjoy it.
Who are you playing?
We’ve done one collaboration with Dieselboy to make a playlist that lasts an entire service. But we’re going to reach out to other drum and bass DJs to make playlists for us and feature them on the menu.
I remember I was dancing in the bathroom when I came in for dinner.
At random, we choose one song to play on loop in there and it’s meant to be a whole different vibe. The other day it was a cumbia version of “Thong Song.”
From the plates to the giant jeroboam on display, there’s a bit of an eclectic aesthetic. How did the team decorate?
Picking plates was super stressful. We were just choosing things on instinct. There are ones that we found at vintage stores and some that we ordered. There are also a lot that we brought from Blanca from a local ceramicist, Nicole Pilar.
Brandon has always said that he wants it to feel like your uncle Giusseppe’s restaurant — it should just feel like a collection of things that you acquire overtime. When we were decorating, it felt a little like early Blanca when we said: “Everyone, just bring us your records!”
With Foul Witch, people were like: “I have this, do you want it?” We’re like, “Yeah, f*ck it.” Carlo’s dad said “I’ve got this chandelier.” It really is a collection of our stuff. It’s not junk per se, but kind of. That’s kind of how we do things in this company; it’s very homegrown.
About the One Who Keeps the Books
How long have you been with the team?
Almost 13 years. I had been working in restaurants in New York for quite a while, at more fine dining-leaning places. I opened Aldea and my first job was at Tabla. I was getting burned out and I thought: Maybe I should just work at my favorite restaurant. The service was chaotic [at Roberta’s] back then, it was exactly the opposite of everything I’d been doing, except the food was there.
It seemed like a crazy career move — this was before the New York Times review; in everyone else’s mind, it was just a pizza place in Bushwick. It was the best decision I’ve ever made.
You’ve probably seen all sorts of things on the floor.
Bushwick’s a truly lawless place — especially when we opened. I could probably be legally implicated in a lot of the stories. There are crazy things that happen. I think we’re known as a place where people can let their inhibitions down. We encourage it, we always have.
Is that true at Foul Witch, too?
Yeah, we’re in the East Village. There’s a line for a club called the Wiggle Room out front. But it’s definitely a little more upscale; it could be a fun date night. Still, we always encourage another glass of wine. This is a place where you can forget you have to work tomorrow.
When did you become the service director?
I was a server at Roberta’s for a really long time. Even at Blanca, I didn’t technically have a title — we’re not that formal. When I took this job, after Blanca had closed, Carlo said: “Well, you’ve kind of always been the service director.”
I was coming off a pretty major surgery, so I was just happy to have a job waiting tables. I’m a one-legged waitress, so they were modifying shifts for me and letting me get used to walking around a restaurant again.
If you feel comfortable, can you share a bit more about that?
The year before the pandemic we found cancer in my ankle. Roberta’s was incredibly kind and let me take a leave of absence so I could keep my health insurance. No other restaurant does that. It showed me my place in the group.
Still, we always encourage another glass of wine. This is a place where you can forget you have to work tomorrow.
How to Become a Regular
Do you have regulars yet?
We do, it’s crazy! I think it says a lot about the food. And one thing we’ve always strived for is a super warm style of service. I’ve always said, this should be the type of service you could get at a diner. I really encourage the staff to make personal connections with people.
How can someone become a regular?
Be really really on top of your reservations. We also have this one diner who just shows up early and grabs a bar seat. We have people who have met at the bar and come back for meals together. That’s New York.
We have a lot of neighborhood people who come early and say, “Text me — I’m going to do my laundry.” And a lot of our Blanca regulars have reached back out.
Will Blanca make a return?
I want to say yes because it’s too sad to say no. Probably yes, that’s really a Carlo/Brandon decision. I would love to do it again, but it’s incredibly daunting to think about as well.
Foul Witch is open 5 to 10 p.m. Thursdays to Mondays.
Devra Ferst is a Brooklyn-based food and travel writer who has contributed to The New York Times, Bon Appetit, Eater, NPR, and numerous other publications. Follow her on Instagram. Follow Resy, too.