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The Neon Brunch King of Astoria Queens:
Donnie D’Alessio, Comfortland, and the Circle of Inspiration

Writing by Mara Gerety  with Photography by Will Engelmann 
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Comfortland is an Astoria institution, a donuts-and-sandwiches takeout joint famous for its whimsical menu and for surviving the pandemic on the tirelessness of its personality and staff. In July of 2023, I joined photographer Will Engelmann to document its rise and reign.

The first thing a person notices upon arriving is the bright Malibu-pink wooden beams holding up the patio, contrasting with the green synthetic grass underfoot. Inside, a painted sheet depicting the cast of The Wizard of Oz feasting like disciples at a candy-colored Last Supper separates the dining room from the storage area, cartoon donuts painted on the wall survey the space with tough-guy expressions, and a projector screen shows clips of ‘80s and ’90s movies. As I walk in, Bob Dylan serenades me via Spotify about “Joey Joey, king of da streets…” and a guy with an easygoing grin and a Café du Monde baseball cap appears from the kitchen: this is owner and mastermind, Donnie D’Alessio.

Donnie takes a seat at the corner table with me and Will under a small framed picture of his first restaurant, Queens Comfort. This was a funky neighborhood diner that opened in 2011, meant from the start to be a gathering place for locals. The menu tended towards the brunchy and delightfully messy, with a whimsical streak suggesting that somewhere in the kitchen was an excitable little boy letting his Saturday-morning imagination run wild - peanut butter and jelly burgers, Cap’n Crunch-encrusted chicken tenders, and so forth – and the whole scene was watched over by a Technicolor army of retro action figures and toys.

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The interior of the Queens Comfort. Donnie's first restaurant before it became Comfortland.

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Donnie D’Alessio Keyword No. 1: comfort. Everything from the childhood-memories aesthetic to the carbs-and-sauce recipes at Queens Comfort was designed to make guests feel at home. “Nostalgia was part of the place even early on,” he explains, “but the walls were really bare at first. So I put out an ad on Instagram for our small regular customer base to bring in their childhood photos.” It was an instant hit: “The word got out, and people who had lived in the neighborhood for a hundred years started bringing in old photos. It was a generational thing. They’d bring in old photos, albums, whole shoe boxes – and that’s how we decorated the walls.” The concept quickly expanded to include kitschy flea-market finds and gadgets – and then an employee of the restaurant revealed an extraordinary personal collection of 1980s and 90s toys. “We had to build shelves,” laughs Donnie. “He brought in, like, a truckload of them and it just went wild. Then we were a toy museum.”

The same wacky aesthetic reigned at Flat Tops, Donnie’s second restaurant, which opened on Ditmars Boulevard in 2016. “It was like an arcade, with tons of neon,” he says. “The people who installed the neon said it was the most neon they’d ever installed in one place.” It was a compliment. Donnie grins as he recalls: “They said, we’ve never met a maximalist like you in our lives!”

The Costata Di Manzo, a huge steak meant for two

“But there’s that circle of inspiration, you know? And I feel like if you live in that, it’s never-ending. There’s an energy there that just moves from chef to chef."

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Donnie D’Alessio Keyword No. 2: maximalism. We’ve been talking for about fifteen minutes at this point and it has become clear that whatever he does, he over-does. Add more ingredients to that sandwich, pour on some more sauce, put up a new wall of decorations and crank the music to eleven and enjoy yourself.

Just then, The Clash comes on over the stereo system (“He’s in love with rock-n-roll, whoa…he don’t like his boring job, no…”) and I compliment Donnie on the playlist he’s chosen. He laughs sheepishly and admits to driving his staff crazy by getting obsessed with certain albums or playlists for days.

He is a restless spirit, wide-eyed on the world, catching a spark of curiosity from unexpected sources and throwing himself into it for as long as it’s still fun – then it’s on to the next idea, no second-guessing, no turning back. “It’s really about creativity over commerce,” he states. “Look at how there’s a thousand Italian restaurants in the city, and they all have almost exactly the same menu. They’ve all got cacio e pepe, they’ve all got carbonara.” Donnie would rather follow his gut than current trends, accepting that with the hits come the bombs. “Sometimes the public loves it, sometimes they don’t.” Shrug. Whaddya gonna do. There’s a touch of punk rock about the guy, a certain DIY ethos– and like any good punk band, it’s precisely the sincerity of his output that has earned him such a devoted fan base.

But Fate was unkind to Flat Tops: it was a little too far up Ditmars, in an older and more conservative neighborhood less entertained by neon, DJs, and outrageous burgers. It opened at the wrong time – shortly after the 2016 presidential election, when the prevailing mood in New York didn’t leave much room for festivities. Construction on the N train line frequently shut down service to Astoria-Ditmars entirely. If it wasn’t one thing it was another, and by 2019, the hard decision had been made and Flat Tops had closed.

This, however, is a story about creativity. With true creativity comes persistence. And that’s where Comfortland comes in.

The space that now hosts Comfortland was the original location of Queens Comfort a decade ago. In 2018, with business booming, D’Alessio and company found a new, larger space down the block for the main restaurant, but still had a good relationship with the landlord of the old space and hated to give it up. Donnie’s sister Montana, an expert baker, joined the team and Comfortland was born – a smaller, breakfast-focused, counter-service outpost of the same soul-soothing philosophy of whimsy and carbs. Donuts were the signature item at the beginning: an early Gothamist piece on the shop’s opening lists “Pumpkin Butterscotch, Arnold Palmer (covered in iced tea and lemonade glazes), Salted Caramel Apple, Peanut Butter-Chocolate-Nutella, Sugar Hill (with cream cheese frosting and pecan bacon), and a Chocolate Bomb” among the available flavors. Comfortland was a hit, and Astoria was delighted.

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Then 2020 happened.

The Covid-19 pandemic shuttered every restaurant in the city overnight, leaving owners and employees scrambling to react. For Donnie and his staff, it meant rolling up their sleeves and keeping the neighborhood bellies full, at a time when comfort was desperately needed. Comfortland’s business model switched to delivery-only, and the dining room was converted into extra storage full of refrigerators and freezers. They never stopped working, and staff and customers alike took solace in that one little bit of business as usual. “There was a handful of our staff that just said let’s work through this,” Donnie recalls, “and they’re still with us. We just kinda…put our heads down and worked. It became an outlet – and a really nice alternative to staying home and watching the news. We decided to just stay at work, put our heads down, work through this, and focus on food. On creating food.”

Queens Comfort hung on for a while in its new space, then finally met the fate of so many other locally owned restaurants and closed for good in October of 2020. Its treasure trove of memorabilia was stashed in a storage unit, where it remains to this day. But Comfortland, the little spinoff shop that could, kept feeding the neighborhood and pulled through.

Today the dining room has tables in it again, but it’s comparatively bare now, as the majority of the operation continues to focus on takeout and delivery. There’s a sense of an unfinished transition, an identity left in crisis by the shock of the past three years. Donnie gestures to blank spaces on the wall that once held colorful menu signs and admits that it feels weird. (Over the stereo system, with impeccable timing, comes Johnny Thunders: “You can’t put your arms around a memory...”) Comfortland is a small operation, and doesn’t have the manpower to meet still-high delivery and takeout demand while also offering full sit-down service. But they’re working to bring the community back, restoring the sense of place that has been so central to each of Donnie’s ventures: a weekend prix-fixe brunch has gotten so popular that it books reservations a month in advance – and as of summer 2023, with the writers’ and actors’ guilds on strike, they’re offering no-questions-asked food to local workers in the film and television industry.

Donnie is also starting to look towards the future, he tells us. While he has no intentions of abandoning the current home of Comfortland, he’s already itchy for a new experiment: right now, his sights are set on Manhattan. “My dream is to open up in the city,” he says. “Maybe something on the Lower East Side. I would do the same thing that we’re doing here, but just a “Greatest Hits” version. The last few years have been hard, and I don’t want to make things harder for myself, but I have millions of concepts in my head…if we opened up in the city and could be just as fun, just operating there could be a whole new experience.”

The kitchen guys bring out some food for Will to photograph, and he springs into action with camera, light reflectors, and software that instantly shows each shot in high definition on his laptop screen. As each picture appears, Donnie gets more and more delighted: “These are amazing! Come on, man, you can’t make the food look that pretty! This is better than our official photo shoot for DoorDash!”

The pictures appear in vibrant color on Will’s screen. There’s a chicken chopped cheese with fig jam and fontina, rich and dense in a fluffy bun. A thick and creamy chicory-coffee and chocolate milkshake freezes my hand as I hold it up in front of the Kevin Lyons cartoon-donut mural (then shamelessly abscond with it after licking the melted drips off my fingers.) Fat, golden fried shrimp and slices of ripe tomato burst out of an overstuffed po’boy: Donnie looks at the first few photos, then runs back to the kitchen for a bottle of mayo and gives it one more decorative squirt.

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Pastries from Montana's menu.

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“I need to be around food,” Donnie says. “I go down to New Orleans to get inspired, then come back here and just want to get crazy in the kitchen. Just out of pure love for food.

Hang on a minute. Chicory coffee, shrimp po’boys? Bottles of Louisiana hot sauce on the counter? A chef in a Café du Monde hat? “What’s with the New Orleans theme?” I ask.

And that, as his eyes light up, is when I learn Donnie D’Alessio Keyword No. 3: inspiration.

He was a latecomer to New Orleans, he explains, visiting for the first time well after Hurricane Katrina changed the city forever. But it was love at first sight, and he has been back “at least forty” times since then. “I go down there to get inspired,” he says.

The Spotify once again provides an uncanny soundtrack: “Well, I went to the bayou just last night…there was no moon, but the stars were bright…” drawls Patti Palladin, covering Elvis’ “Crawfish.”

“I need to be around food,” Donnie says. “I go down to New Orleans to get inspired, then come back here and just want to get crazy in the kitchen. Just out of pure love for food. I feel like people are inspired down there – and the way that inspiration works is this: to live in New Orleans, you have to fucking love New Orleans, because it is not an easy place to live. The city’s all fucked up, the politics are all fucked up, the streets are all fucked up with crazy huge potholes. You get hurricanes, you’re living under sea level. And the heat – the mad heat!” He laughs. “If you’re living down there, you love it down there. You have to love it. With so many great chefs and restaurants there, they have a real unity and love for food and tradition, and a melting pot that is very similar to New York.”

He pauses, a gleam in his eye. “But there’s that circle of inspiration, you know? And I feel like if you live in that, it’s never-ending. There’s an energy there that just moves from chef to chef, and then whenever I go down there – oh my God, it’s the best meal.”

For Donnie, creativity is a state of being, and inspiration is as necessary as breathing. It comes from exploring, wandering, communicating and experimenting – inspiration isn’t something that arrives from on high, but it’s something you find and create through your own actions. And like his vision of New Orleanians fueling their love for their city with the very troubles and difficulties of living there, inspiration is also what happens when you’re forced to make the best of things.

During the early days of the pandemic shutdown, Comfortland’s menu was almost all donuts and cakes, with exactly one chicken sandwich on offer. When nearly every other restaurant in the neighborhood closed its doors, Astorians began ordering an alarming amount of chicken sandwiches. Donnie would find himself alone in the kitchen, making the same thing over and over again, keeping up with orders and getting bored out of his skull. Chicken sandwich. Chicken sandwich. Chicken sandwich. Clock out. Do it all again tomorrow. Chicken sandwich. Chicken sandwich.

“I guess what happened was when people started to come back into the kitchen, I was like, I gotta put more stuff on the menu,” Donnie says with a chuckle. “I was just chicken sandwiched out, and I spiraled out of control. I started making tons of food, and that’s when our identity started to shift too…I just wanted to make comfort food. Everybody wanted comfort food.” Now the menu is several pages long and includes sandwiches with names like “The Shogun Assassin” (ribeye steak, hot honey, two kinds of cheese, arugula and pickled onions) and “The Space Jam” (cornbread-crusted fried chicken with bacon, blackberry jam, and spicy mayo.) The donuts, once the house-made centerpiece of the operation, are now provided by the excellent Peter Pan Bakery in Greenpoint.

Our visit is winding down. Will is adjusting the lighting for the last few pictures, and I’m digging into a magnificently messy fried green tomato sandwich dripping with coleslaw and pepper relish.

At Comfortland, I decide, the food is loud and maximalist, but the revolution is quiet. It sneaks up on you. And make no mistake, this place is revolutionary for a restaurant in 2023 New York City: there’s no slick artist’s statement, it’s not a curated and focus-grouped brand identity. They have an Instagram, but it’s not the point of the place. Donnie’s eager sense of wonder and his restless goofing around with flavors and décor all come straight from the heart – he’s truly just having fun and inviting everyone else to the party.

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The fried tomato sandwich that Mara ate.

“It’s a give and take at every restaurant,” he says. “Some lean more towards the business side and just ride the trends. That’s not as exciting for us. We’re always balancing too, but we love this side. We favor the creative process, experimenting. That’s where our passion is. “We get excited and – I don’t know, this sounds kind of cheesy, but we want to be in that cycle of inspiration. We want people to come here and eat something and be inspired to go home and do whatever it is that they do. Whatever it is, they just want to go home and do that thing! You have to share that energy. That’s our sense of purpose.”

We say our goodbyes as the oddly sentient playlist fades to jazz, and I’m sent on my way with a slice of homemade Oreo ice cream cake in a to-go bag. As the cake melts into soup and the N train chugs back around the long way to Brooklyn, I reflect on the Comfortland philosophy: life according to Donnie D’Alessio.

Be a part of your community and bring something delicious to good times and bad. Find a place you love and visit it forty times, find a great album and listen to it till the vinyl wears out. Follow your own passion and curiosity down strange and unplanned paths, and your people will find you where you’re meant to be. Then, when you’re being fully yourself, you’ll end up as part of the circle of creative inspiration: sparking neon lights to life in others, illuminating the way out of their own endless identical-chicken-sandwich loops and towards their own personal New Orleans of the mind.

And never be afraid to put more sauce on it.

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Staff portrait outside of the Comfortland. Donnie is on the far right.

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