Artshack Brooklyn, a non-profit ceramics studio, school, and summer camp on Bedford Avenue in Bed-Stuy, has always been as much about creating community as it’s been about throwing clay.
Founded in 2008 by McKendree Key, a native New Yorker who has lived in in the neighborhood for almost two decades, Artshack has grown and evolved over the years. It qualified for its non-profit 501(c)(3) status in 2016 and expanded into vacant space on the block. In 2019 it responded with seriousness and urgency when racially offensive Halloween decorations at the home of a now-former director threatened to run it out of business.
A few weeks ago Artshack took another step toward solidifying its role as a “community anchor,” as Key would have it, by opening a lively cafe in the former MixTape Shop next door, complete with chairs shaped like bunnies, an anti-racism library, a lounge-y area, charming signage made with ceramic lettering, and an impressively varied menu from chef Silivia Barban, who made a name for herself at her Fort Greene restaurant Larina Pastificio.
“When this space became available we obviously had to take it,” Key tells Brooklyn Magazine. “We wanted to keep it a cafe, a place where people could come and sit down and have a conversation. This is a great neighborhood, we have an amazing community, and it’s just incredible to now have this cafe be a part of it.”
Chef Barban is originally from northern Italy, near Milan, but has lived in Bed-Stuy for about decade. She says she knew it was important to have something for everybody on the menu. “I love to cook, I’ve been doing this for a long time,” Barban says. “I started when I was very little, my grandmother was the one teaching me then, so for the Artshack menu I wanted to incorporate my heritage but also some of the influences from what is my life now, in Brooklyn. I’m not just eating Italian food, so that why we have all different things.”
There are plenty of pastries — at its core, Artshack Cafe is a coffee shop — headlined by Bardan’s squishy and delicious olive oil cake, just like her mom used to make.
Mamma’s olive oil cake, $5 (Scott Lynch)
There are croissants, lemon squares, truffle brownie bars, slices of raspberry crostata, and tahini chocolate chip cookies.
Tahini chocolate chip cookie, $3 (Scott Lynch)
A couple of sandwiches are available on strecci, which is like a baguette but spongier, including a lovely prosciutto and mozzarella number that comes slathered with Calabrian chili mayo.
Prosciutto and mozzarella strecci sandwich, $12 (Scott Lynch)
If you prefer your lunch to look more like a doughnut, get the egg, bacon, and cheese bombolone, which is filled with more of that spicy mayo.
Barban and Key have some good friends in the neighborhood who love making Japanese food, and every morning they bring in trays of outrageously good onigiri (the umeboshi, or salted plum, will always be a favorite in this category).
Umeboshi (salt plum) onigiri; $5.50 (Scott Lynch)
There are also loaves of freshly-baked milk bread, slabs of which are used for open-faced sandwiches (the extra-creamy egg salad one was first rate).
Egg salad milk bread toast, $12 (Scott Lynch)
Barban is putting out specials too, which earlier this week included a summery panzanella and a bubbling-hot shakshuka, bright, tomato-based stew housing a pair of runny eggs.
Egg salad milk bread toast, $12 (Scott Lynch)
The most popular “dish” however, at least among the packs of kids leaving Artshack’s day camp, was the cafe’s house made soft serve, which on this day came in two flavors: a bold vanilla and a tangy, dairy-free strawberry.
Vanilla and strawberry soft serve, $6.50 (Scott Lynch)
While there is a lot on offer at Artshack Cafe, don’t expect any of it to be served with any sort of single-use products. There are no takeout bags or containers here, no paper napkins, no plastic utensils, no straws, and no disposable cups. The cafe even works with Cup Zero, a cup-borrowing app, to reduce single-use cups. “If you don’t want to download the app or don’t have a smartphone we have ceramic giveaway cups that you can take with you and keep, or you can stay and use one of our mugs that are made here, or you can bring your own,” says Key.
“We’re a ceramics studio so we’re obsessed with clay,” she adds. “The idea is you can use ceramics instead of single-use plastic and it’s just better for everything: it tastes better, it looks better, it’s slower — we don’t cater so much to the quick to-go crowd — and it’s just the way the world has to go. We can’t keep doing it the way we’ve been doing it. It’s insanity. The waste is just insane.”
Artshack Cafe is located at 1129 Bedford Avenue, between Madison and Monroe Streets, and is currently open on Tuesday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on Saturday and Sunday from 9 to 4. Nighttime hours, and a menu expansion, is coming later this year.