When I got to The Bagel Store on Bedford Avenue and descended down its steep stairs, I found Scot Rossillo rolling red, white, and blue swirled vanilla bagels. It was a tribute to France, rolled to a soundtrack of operatic music wavering throughout the space.
“I wasn’t gonna do it,” said Rossillo as he quickly rolled bagels on his work table, “but I got a lot of people prompting me to do it, so I’m doing it.
Rossillo is a larger Jewish-Italian man, a native Brooklynite with an accent to match, complete with earrings, tattoo sleeves, and a genuine spirituality that blends into his work. He is the man behind the rainbow bagel, bagels that have been swirled with vibrant colors that don’t bleed or fade and taste a lot like Fruit Loops and are usually stuffed with Funfetti cream cheese.
If you want one, you have to call the day before to reserve one. These rainbow bagels are a hot commodity, and he only makes limited batches.
“I’m the world’s premier bagel artist!” he exclaimed as he stopped rolling.
Rossillo doesn’t just make rainbows. In addition to the Insta-famous rainbow beauties, he also makes plenty of other flavors.
“I make unique bagels; the croissant bagel (the cragel) the bacon-egg-and-cheese bagel, French toast bagel, and a host of other hybrids,” said Rossillo.
Among that host of hybrids are even wilder combinations: a mac and cheese bagel, a ramen bagel, a Philly cheesesteak bagel, a taco bagel, and more. In a fridge where the bagels cold proof, he showed me stacks of spinach parmesan bagels, Challah bagels with braids just like the bread, and cotton candy bagels amongst the regulars. He pulled a bacon-egg-and-cheese bagel (with the ingredients incorporated into the bread) off a tray and up to my nose so I could smell the smoky bacon.
“Oh my god, there’s no territory he hasn’t covered,” said his older sister, Michelle Ferro, who works with Rossillo, “you want flavored bagels, I’ve lost count at this point.”
It’s the rainbow bagels that are his most famous. Rossillo got the idea 20 years ago and has been developing them ever since.
“20 years of experiments, 20 years of failures—I wouldn’t say failures, it brought me to here,” said Rossillo. “I always keep on keeping on even though many times people would come to me— ‘you’ll never be able to sell those fucking bagels!’”
Rossillo started making rainbow bagels at a different location a place called Bagel World in Brooklyn Heights. The store, which he partially owned, was opened in 1998. He moved to The Bagel Store two years later in 2000, and sold his portion of Bagel World in 2003. During the first rainbow attempts, the bagels weren’t quite selling. According to Rossillo, it just wasn’t the right time.
“It started this year with gay marriages being equal in America, that was a big month,” said Rossillo, “Then I made a bagel for Jonathan Cheban—he’s Kim Kardashian’s best friend.”
Rossillo has just sent bagels to Tyra Banks and the others at the show FABlife for her, the crew, and most of the audience. Not only that, his bagels have been on the Wendy Williams Show, sent to the New York Mets, and even gone to NYU—he’s working on violet and white swirled bagels for an event for NYU Langone.
The colorful, flavored bagels are a much longer, much more intensive process than the regular plain bagel or even the usual array that might be found at any bagel shop. Rossillo can make around 5,000 regular bagels in the time it takes to make 100 rainbow ones. That’s the reason Rossillo was hesitant to make Cheban’s order, which was a bit last minute. He didn’t want to rush.
“Compared to normal bagels, the process is 10 times, 12 times longer,” said Rossillo, “so this has to be a labor of intense love because it’s not a labor of intense profit.”
Though the bagels are pricier than the standard fare at $3.95, the process implies that they could and should be sold for more. Rossillo insists that the colorful and flavored bagels be handmade in smaller batches, and trusts no one but his assistant Osiel Estobar to make the rainbows.
“Everything’s a small dose. That’s how you keep it the way you want it,” he said, “you start to overgrow, you start to lose the love and care. The value goes out the fucking door.”
He’s worked so long on this, it’s no wonder value is so important to him. Rossillo has sacrificed a lot of his social life (and sometimes even his family life) to craft the colorful bagels.
This might be the reason why he’s so secretive about his work. He didn’t let me photograph the rolling process of the rainbow bagels, though he was unconcerned about the other kinds. He’s keeps his recipes and methods under wraps, citing “technique” as the reason behind a good bagel, a masterful flavor combination, a beautiful swirl of colors. He prefers hand rolling to a machine for a gentler handling of the dough, and doesn’t quite agree with the idea that New York City water is the reason behind a quality bagel. The reasons why his colors don’t run, fade, or turn brown in the oven are completely hush-hush. He keeps himself closed off from the media (excluding social media where he likes Instagram to communicate with the fans) and doesn’t drink or do drugs. He’s completely dedicated to the bagels.
“When I walk on the street, I don’t look like a whole lot, there’s nothing exciting about me,” said Rossillo, “but when I get to the mixer, I get to the color, I get to the thinking, everything just comes, like drawn out of the universe. That’s the best way I can really put it. No one wants to be average.”
“It was personal therapy,” he said, “We all have problems in life. Nobody’s perfect in life. We all need an outlet of sorts. Like I said, I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, my outlet if my bagel art. Here, I can become anyone I want to be.”
In this, he is secretive too. He mentioned that he once spent 8 hours in jail at age 17 for something “stupid,” and doesn’t find his tattoos have the same meaning that they once did for him.
“I’m not there anymore,” he said, “You should be better when you get older. That should be the goal. It’s not always going to happen, but…”
He trailed off and continued rolling, this time a batch of red-and-white swirled bagels, red velvet in flavor, for Christmas. He prompted me to step in and roll, showing me how to make them even, size them, and then hide the seam so they look neat, all the while offering sympathy when he asked about my (rather hard) week. He talked about how he found hand-spun noodles fascinating, asked me about the food I grew up with, and mused about Depression-era cooking, when anything could be made edible. He talked me through my own bread-baking woes, giving me simple instructions on how to make a starter.
Rossillo’s passion for food comes from early on. He grew up behind a bagel store, smelling them fresh every morning when he woke up. He said his mother was a “lousy cook,” citing his grandfather as a major influence.
“He used to have an old fashioned hot dog cart,” said Rossillo, “Used to help him cut the onions every day in the morning. Hardworking man. Lived ’till he was 86 years old, many people would never dream of that.”
While Rossillo joked about his lack of a formal education, he graduated from the French Culinary Institute‘s International Bread Baking Program and from there he set off to make the bagels that are now making him quite popular. He gets international requests for the rainbows, which he can’t currently supply, though he dreams of eventually doing so when he has the money for it. He wants to be able to put a rainbow bagel in everyone’s hand, though to make that mass quantity of bagels would be difficult considering his small batch approach.
Right now, he’s just thinking about more bagel concepts, such as princess rainbow bagels (inspired by Disney princess dresses), Democrat and Republican bagels for the election, bright solid colored bagels sold as a rainbow set, among many more ideas. He’s constantly looking to improve his rainbow bagels. The main goal is to make people happy with the colors.
“When you look at people’s Instagrams, they’re happy. They’re not faking it,” he said when referencing how many people have taken shots of his bagels, “They’re happy they got it and it’s making their day better. That’s the most important thing.”
[Photos via the author]
* This post originally appeared at NYU Local. Author: Kari Sonde