HELL'S KITCHEN — Darren Greenblatt said he wasn't sure what to expect the first time he went to Alabama to visit a friend.
As a gay, Jewish New Yorker, all he had to go on was his fondness for actress Pauley Perrette, who had invited him to join her trip back home after befriending him in Hell's Kitchen two decades ago.
"It's not what you expect, a gay New York Jew to go down to the South and love the food, but I loved it and started to make it," said Greenblatt, whose love of old-fashioned Southern baking culminated in the new venue Donna Bell's Bake Shop, which opened this summer at 301 W. 49th St.
The store is named after Perrette's mother, who passed away in 2002 and left her recipes to Greenblatt.
"People used to joke: your fashion's OK, but your banana pudding is awesome," said Greenblatt, who worked as a designer in the city for years before shifting his attention to the bakery, which he runs along with Perrette, who plays Abby Sciuto on the popular CBS drama NCIS.
Greenblatt and Perrette run the compact 550-square-foot bake shop with and their chef friend Matthew Sandusky. The three met decades ago in Hell's Kitchen. Back then, Greenblatt was a budding designer, and Perrette was bartending to support her acting career.
"Living in Hell's Kitchen, we saw what businesses worked around here," Greenblatt said. "Our first goal is to be neighborhood-y. There's not enough small businesses, there's not enough independence."
The bakery specializes in the Southern fare that Donna Bell perfected over her life: bacon, blue cheese, and parsley biscuits, mac and cheese, chicken and dumplings, and a customer favorite: the magic bar. Its ingredients include Reese's pieces, shortbread, cranberries, pecans and white chocolate.
Greenblatt says he has made a few minor adjustments to the recipes — a little more butter here, a little less Crisco there.
"We're not buying our ingredients pre-made," Greenblatt said, as Sandusky was busy cooking up a fresh batch of chicken and dumplings. "We're making them right here."
Everything the shop sells is made in the tiny space, which is decorated to look like a cozy Southern kitchenette, with a handful of people hard at work baking tasty treats just feet from the cash register.
On Monday afternoon, dozens of customers stopped by to pick up a biscuit or a cupcake, and Greenblatt said that business has been booming since the store opened in May. He said that serving items that are fresh-baked appeals to the neighborhood, even if he admits that there may be easier ways to make food.
"You're gonna love this," he said, repeating a line written on Donna Bell's recipes which has become the bakery's motto. "It's a lot of trouble, but it's worth it."