Beyond the bagels at Tompkins Square 

This time last month I was sifting through the contents of my spam folder when something unexpected caught my attention. In between the propositions for adult dating, the lame hotel deals and the fake bank account alerts, sat a message that had come through my blogs contact page. Christoper Pugliese, founder and proprietor of Tompkins Square Bagels, had messaged me to say “thanks for coming and thanks for the very kind words about my shop.” I was ecstatic that he had taken the time to not only read my post but also to share it on the Tompkins Square Bagels Facebook page. In my mind, this quick and thoughtful note had presented me with an opportunity that might not arise again, to ask the owner of a NYC bagel shop if I could come and see how the bagels are made.

For those who have not read my ‘about’ page, the obsession with bagels began circa 2015. I found myself an American man in the middle of the Australian outback and travelled with him back to his home state of Florida. With 3 months to play with, we embarked on a mission to sample as many different foods as possible. Having grown up in the UK, I’d never really experienced a real bagel before. The only place where they might be considered popular (and good) would be in the sprawling metropolis of London. The shops were originally founded by immigrants in the cobbled streets of the East End, but as the curry houses crept closer, the bakers swapped the smoke for the suburbs.

The idea for my blog materialised during a trip to Thailand. The small northern town of Pai seems an unlikely place to get delicious homemade bagels, but there they were! Two friends and I were discussing my up and coming move to the USA and how I would be able to keep myself occupied whilst waiting for my paperwork to be processed. Gallivanting around trying different bagels would be a scrumptious adventure and would also give me a purpose in the coming months. A friendly conversation in one bagel shop led me to another. Tompkins Square Bagels in the quirky neighbourhood of the East Village. If you want hear why I fell in love with Tompkins Square Bagels in the first place, here’s my original post from February:

New York City in spring is truly fabulous. Like a caterpillar emerging from it’s chrysalis, the city is rejuvenated and refreshed, the other seasons instantly forgotten. The sweltering sidewalks of summer, the changing of the leaves in fall and the never-ending grey slush of winter are just a distant memory. The crowds begin to flock to the Highline or to the sheep meadow in Central Park. They cross the river to go to Brooklyn or take the tram to Roosevelt Island. But for those of us who are chasing something a little different, we make our way to the East Village. Chairs and tables have spilled out onto the sidewalks, boutiques have thrown open their doors and the semi-transparent blossom carpets the square. Tompkins Square Bagels sits proudly amongst it all on Avenue A in the community it calls home.

The owner, Christopher Pugliese greets us with a distracted smile and a handshake. After the introductions, I comment on the line stretching the entire length of the shop. He merely nods and divulges that it was in fact quite a calm morning and the reason for opening the second location was that the wait time had become too long. In the open kitchen, the Cutler oven hadn’t noticed the momentary ‘lull’ in customers and continued to vigorously work away, bringing beautifully browned bagels into the world.

The search for the Cutler oven took Christopher all the way down to Florida. Even though the Cutler Oven Company is no longer in business, they still hold the title for being the best and the ovens are still very much in demand. “The Cutler Oven is the Rolls-Royce of the industry.” The triple burners and extra insulation are vital for achieving the incredibly high temperatures needed for baking bagels. But before the dough gets near the piping hot revolving trays, it must spend around 90 seconds boiling in the kettle (pictured below.) I  didn’t quite realise how important this stage of the process was until I read ‘The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread’ written by Maria Balinska. Not only does the boiling assist in creating that unique texture and gorgeous glossy exterior but it is also crucial for preserving the shape of the bagel whilst it bakes.

Bagels have had an interesting journey since their first documented mention in 1610. They started out as an expensive commodity only eaten in European palaces, but as the price of wheat dropped they appeared on every street corner being peddled by peasants. When the bagel arrived on American shores, it slowly morphed into a national phenomenon. To keep up with the demand of the popular lox and cream cheese breakfast of the 90’s, the steam oven was invented to skip the boiling process. Mass production had jumped on the band wagon, and flavour, texture & tradition were being sacrificed at any cost. Christoper was very clear that Tompkins Square Bagels does not take any shortcuts and in recent years he has seen more and more people choosing to return to the old ways. The flawlessly curved machine produced bagel has not yet won. 

In a way, we can thank Christopher’s wife for the creation of Tompkins Square Bagels. After they moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan, she continued to send him back to buy bagels as there wasn’t a single shop between Houston and 14th street. With the memories of his early starts at the bagel shop in Brooklyn and the years of experience in the restaurant industry behind him, Christopher decided to open his own bagel shop. What was now to be the location of his new business, was once the secret destination of his youth. Late night subway rides had taken him and his friends to the then dangerous neighbourhood of the East Village. In the 80’s, the underground art and music scene had proved too hard to resist for a group of adventurous teens.

When the decision was made, Christopher wished to recreate the steamy bakeries of his childhood, but also to bring something new to the neighbourhood but also to the city. He studied the service style of other bagel shops and took inspiration for the interior from the Dutch city of Amsterdam. All that planning definitely paid off, because when you first walk into Tompkins Square Bagels the thoughtfulness of the set up and the personality within the place is obvious. Colourful murals cover the walls of the outdoor area, a mosaic is the proud centerpiece, all created by East Village artists. The menu’s are easy to understand, even to a bagel novice and everything in the display fridge’s is well labelled. Tall shelves stretch along one side loaded with local products. Nestled inbetween the jars and bottles are soft toys, perched there for no other reason than to make people smile as they rush about their day.

But what we really came to see was underneath street level, where all the pre-oven magic happens. The customers probably don’t even notice or even stop to wonder why trays of uncooked freshly made bagels are being whisked up the stairs, but NYC actually has a long history of bagels being made in basements. The original idea was that the cool subterranean temperatures would prevent the dough from rising too quickly, but in the 1890’s you can just imagine how horrendous the conditions would have been. They were so appalling that numerous bagel baker unions were founded to fight on the workers behalf. Nowadays the conditions have undoubtedly improved and it is merely a question of real estate and limited space.

Downstairs we met Celestino, a champion dough mixer and bagel roller who Christopher has known for over 25 years. He was a blur of repetitious movement, the pile of freshly made dough to his left slowly diminishing and appearing to his right as a tray of hand rolled bagels. The whole process was so mesmerizing that I was hesitant to interrupt his flow, but we did learn that on a busy day he can roll out 4000 bagels, by himself. Most of the ingredients were stored under the counter in easy access containers where they could be scooped out and thrown into the mixer. The water was already waiting for the other components, the yeast, the viscous barley malt and a 100 lb bag of snowy white flour were all added to the fray. Slowly but surely they fused together into something we recognized: dough. 

 Just for the record, the videos below are not sped up… that is just the rate that Celestino moves at!

We may not have seen the bagel making process quite in the correct order but from what we saw during our few hours at Tompkins Square Bagels, I think we got the gist. To make a bagel from scratch, is not an easy undertaking. To create such doughy harmony you not only need the correct ingredients but also the right people on your team. Bagel making is a labour of love and an art form that will coax an opinion out of the quietest of people. It has been a platform for invention and has aided new immigrants in unfamiliar lands. Bakeries have founded entire towns and harboured revolutionary ideas under dictatorships. The bagels themselves have fed kings and sustained polish ghettos, they’ve inspired oil paintings and children’s books. But for right now, they satisfy our appetites and just make us happy.

As for the future of Tompkins Square Bagels, there’s hope of a 3rd location in the West Village. But for Christopher there’s no rush. It’s more about finding the right location rather than expanding for the sake of expanding. If money was not an issue and there were no strings attached, his ultimate dream would be to open a bagel shop in Amsterdam. But for now, we are more than happy to keep him, his wonderful staff and his outstanding bagels in New York City!

165 Avenue A, New York, NY 10009
184 2nd Avenue, New York, NY 10009