Darren Monaco has been making bagels since he was 13. The same get- up-and-go that had him learning the craft after school has made his business, Village Bagels, a success. He’s worked in New York, done a stint in California, and has been the bagel master at his own store here in Norwalk for more than 20 years.
Bagels are a fundamental part of our New York area culture. Having an opinion on the best bagel source is just what we do. Justifying your choice can be as heated as a debate on your favorite pizza: part personal preference; part family tradition; part convenience; and part the quality and care of the baker. For many, Village Bagels on Westport Avenue (villagebagelsnorwalk.com) is the fave. Tony Aitoro, whose store is next door, says, “They’re great!”
Fresh-baked is a given. Some people like bagels with a crispy surface, others with a softer outside. Size can be an issue. They have gotten bigger over the years. Beyond plain, there’s plenty of flavor options: sesame, poppy seed, whole wheat, cinnamon raisin, onion – a universe of taste between nothing and everything.
But the big debate is over chewiness. You can find everything from jaw wearying toughness to English muffin like tenderness. I visited Village Bagels and asked Darren how chewy a bagel should be. After a minute’s thought, he answered, “About ten chews per bite.” We measure almost everything in our over-analyzed world, but this may be new: the chewiness scale, expressed as chews per bite.
The best bagels are baked fresh every morning, the conclusion of a process that begins the day before. Darren walked me through the steps. The dough is mixed in a massive floor-model mixer. Next, the dough is cut into long ropes (each about four feet long!) and fed into a fascinating machine that cuts it to size, then forms the classic ring shapes.
In the wee hours of the morning, the chilled, proofed dough rings are plopped in a kettle of boiling water for a quick hot water bath, a process unique to bagel making that creates the signature crust and chewy texture. Fished out of the water, they’re lined up on wooden boards and baked, 36 dozen at a time, for 12 minutes. Fragrant, golden brown, steaming hot – bagels at last!
Each bakery has its own (often secret) variation on this basic method. The small changes account for the distinct differences in flavor, appearance, and texture from shop to shop – the basis of personal preference and bakery loyalty.
It’s said that the best bagels come from New York City and that you can’t get an authentic bagel in the rest of the country. I haven’t taken a cross continent bagel tour (although it’s not a bad idea), but I did ask Darren his thoughts on the best NYC bagels. Ess-a-Bagel on 3rd Ave. at 21st St. was his favorite. He fondly remembers H & H, too, a bagel destination that closed in 2012 – a blow to bagel lovers around the world.
Liz Sue Bagels on New Canaan Ave. in Norwalk is another local destination for authentic bagels. The atmosphere here is more utilitarian, but the chewy, crisp skinned bagels are made right there. You can see into the kitchen where typically burly bagel bakers are working their magic.
Bacon, egg and cheese on a bagel is popular for a hearty breakfast. A bagel with a schmeer can include any of their 15 or so bagel flavors with plain or flavored cream cheese, whipped in the store. I was particularly taken with the sun dried tomato, smoked salmon, and smoked whitefish blends. Darren’s shop does not live by bagels alone: muffins in many flavors are tempting if you need a bagel break.
Service begins at 6:00 AM with the early crowd. The busiest times through the morning are at a quarter to the hour, just before time to report for work. Lunch is busy, too, featuring a full line of sandwiches and paninis and a colorful, fresh salad bar in addition to bagels.
The clean bright shop is lined with showcases of baked goods, bagel condiments, and the bright salad bar. Cheerful bagel characters smile down from the walls. Darren greets the regulars (and there are lots) by name, but everyone gets a warm welcome from all the staff. He still has the high-energy work ethic that got him going 21 years ago. His enthusiasm for bagels knows no bounds. Right now, he’s excited about rainbow bagels, the dough colored with a mix of colors like a tie-dyed shirt. The kids love them.
Bagels are good for everyday eating, special occasions, or to make a celebration from scratch. Show up with a sack of assorted fresh bagels, a few flavors of cream cheese, and maybe a slim package of smoked salmon and watch the eyes light up. Who doesn’t like that?
Bagels, a year round treat, are also the traditional Christmas morning breakfast at our house. They’re even good for romance: Darren met his wife across the counter over a good bagel.