There’s one place in the world that fills me with unparalleled nervous excitement, leaving me with the sense that something big is around the corner. That place is the Jerusalem Central Bus Station in the hours before Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest that lasts from sunset Friday to nightfall Saturday. Hordes of people rush through the station, buying last-minute challah or flowers to bring home to their families.
When I was on my gap year in Israel, I spent every Friday embroiled in this chaos, weaving through travelers and attempting to understand the people barking at me in Hebrew. The only oasis from the crowds was the multitude of bakeries. I would stop in on my way to the bus and pick up a sickly-sweet Israeli iced coffee and whatever pastries were sitting out. This specific mayhem mixed with warmth and familiarity is one that I haven’t experienced in America—at least, not until I visited Ricotta, the newly opened kosher restaurant on Chapel Street.
Ricotta opened in early September in the space that used to house the bakery Four Flours. It is one of the few restaurants in New Haven with a kosher certification, joining three establishments that lie along Whalley Avenue, west of campus: a sushi bar called Fin and Scale, a Middle Eastern fusion restaurant called Ladle and Loaf, and a grocery store called Edge of the Woods. Before Ricotta opened, however, the only kosher restaurant frequented by Yalies was Claire’s Corner Copia.
It was once unthinkable that there could be this many kosher businesses in the Elm City. The first Jews arrived in New Haven in 1758, but the Jewish population remained under ten (the size of a quorum necessary for Jewish communal prayer) for the whole of the subsequent century. The Jewish population began growing steadily in 1882, when the first Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms arrived from Russia. Today, there are approximately 25,000 Jews in the greater New Haven area, including a large Hasidic community affiliated with the Chabad movement. In addition to the Orthodox Jewish population at Yale, Ricotta serves the Chabad community, adhering to even more stringent kosher certifications to allow the highly observant to eat there.
Walking into Ricotta on a Friday morning, I immediately hear “Shalom! Ma koreh?” (Hey, what’s up?) from Yakov, one of the owners of the bakery whom I have gotten to know over the past few weeks. We chat in Hebrew and talk about our plans for the upcoming Shabbat. If there’s a new pastry being served, he’ll offer me a free sample. Invariably, I will see someone I know from the Yale or New Haven Jewish community, or meet another Jew from the area.
The glass storefront of Ricotta reveals bright yellow walls and tasty fresh pastries to pedestrians. On Fridays, there is fresh challah for Shabbat and pre-packaged salads that people can buy for their festive meals. True to Israeli form, there is also a machine constantly churning frozen drinks (including Israeli-style iced coffee). And unsurprisingly, in a city known for its pizza, Ricotta’s pie is the star menu item. They also have bagels, salads, french fries, and falafel-—but don’t assume that they will have all of those things when you go. In reality, they have whatever they have on any given day.
Yakov, who co-owns Ricotta with his cousin Nadav, is perpetually busy. He has a friendly demeanor, a long beard, and is usually wearing a sweatshirt and jeans (and always a yarmulke). He seems to take orders, serve food, work the register, man the phone, and chat with customers all at the same time.
Given the calm but chaotic pre-Shabbat vibe of the bakery, I was not surprised when Yakov told me that the idea for his bakery was born on Shabbat. I sat down with Yakov, who described to me how Nadav, who owns two restaurants in New York, would come to visit him in New Haven on holidays and ask for pizza, to which Yakov had to tell him that there was no kosher pizza in New Haven: a shanda! (embarrassment). One Shabbat, Yakov reports, Nadav suggested that they open a kosher pizza restaurant in New Haven. Yakov was hesitant at first—he claimed he was “not a chef.” However, he was ultimately convinced that New Haven needed more kosher restaurants.
For observant Jewish Yale students and New Haven residents, Ricotta’s opening is monumental. Being able to walk a few blocks for kosher food at times when the Slifka dining hall is not open or students want a change of pace is a big deal: “Every time I go in I thank them for being here because it’s such a gamechanger to have kosher pizza in New Haven,” says Maayan Schoen (DC ‘23). A Beaver Hills resident that I talked to at the restaurant told me that the opening of Ricotta was one of the most exciting developments for her—and for her children—in fifteen years of living in New Haven. According to Yakov, this success is no coincidence. He chalks it up to “hashgacha pratit”—divine providence.