Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Pizza Field Notes, by Celest

kc-pizzaWhenever my dad (a gregarious MexTexican) comes to visit, his favorite thing to do is ask every random person he meets what they think is the best slice of pizza in New York City. He asks everyone. Cabbies. Bartenders. Bodega owners. He’s often eating a slice while he asks the guy, who just sold it to him,

“Alright, where’s the best slice in the city really?”

My father is an enthusiastic viewer of Man Versus Food.

I love pizza expansively enough to know that the idea of a “best” slice is, itself, a false premise…

unless, of course, you want to get all historiographic about it and argue the superiority of the original, Neapolitan pies, which are found only in a couple of famous, gritty spots in that costal city. In that case, I’ll say that the pie(s) Kimberly and I shared at Da Michele with a couple of Neapolitan gentlemen a few years back were pretty mind-blowingly amazing. But in Italy, you lose all your objectivity since everything around you is so stimulating. Eating pizza in Naples, you can’t escape the sense that you are devouring the present and the past in each bite and it’s all so intoxicating.

…but really, the best slice is usually the one in your hand. So here’s my take (in no way comprehensive, just some field notes) on a few recent, delicious forays into everybody’s favorite food:

Roberta’s: In order to visit Sara (and to work on my hipster bona fides), I occasionally travel to Bushwick. Sadly, these visits do not often include memorable food experiences (hummus and pita at Sara’s, notwithstanding), but when the two of us visited Roberta’s a couple of months ago, I found a much-hyped Brooklyn joint that I thought really stood up to its good press. I fell instant and hard for our impossibly cool, foodie-for-real waitress who steered us toward the most interesting choices (braised tripe, roasted marrow bones) on the menu and coursed out a meal of abundant seasonal textures and flavors. Pizza was only one of the dishes we enjoyed, but we went for it, devouring a Crispy Glover pie (tomato, taleggio, garlic, guanciale, onion, breadcrumbs, pepperoncini oil). I’m a sucker for inventive topping combinations (if all the component parts are of high quality and somebody skilled is manning the oven). For this, Roberta’s is fantastic.

Luzzo’s: I just spent Valentines Day here with my beloved On and Off Again. The first thing you notice about this place when you squeeze yourself in the front door is that more than half the people in the joint are speaking Italian! If there’s anything that can put a good pizza joint over the top, it might just be a roiling linguistic soundtrack of Italy’s mother tongue. We went, as we always do, for the Pizza Tartufata, a glorious charred disc lightly shellacked with acidic tomato sauce, topped with a generous amount of sour/sweet buffalo mozzarella, leaves of fresh basil and all topped with drizzles (liquefied from a pate) of aromatic black truffle. It combines to make a great sensory experience: pleasantly oily, chewy, redolent, salty, smoky…a truly sexy pizza.

pizza-signMotorino: Funny enough, considering my proclivity for rich indulgences, I don’t die for bacon. I like it. I think pork is often delicious as a component of a dish, but the flavor of bacon doesn’t light up my life the way it does for some. That said, I think that the Brussels sprout, smoked pancetta pizza, which Sam Sifton recently called, “…something from a magic act, a dog speaking BBC English ”and “…great and unsettling, far better than imagination would dictate” is a truly glorious pie. I adore the crisp texture of the Brussels sprout leaves that have been strewn about the bed of cheese (mozzarella and pecorino), garlic and pancetta, then fired so that the crust is pillowy but crackles at the outsides. The combination of flavors is mesmerizing and if the fresh mozzarella leaves the middle of the pie a little soggy, the al dente bits of salty bacon and earthy little leaves mute the effect, making the sum of the parts bizarrely good.

Otto: After Sara’s infamous exit from Mario’s joint, on the publication of some juicy details of her book in Page Six, I’ve frequented Otto a little less frequently. But I’m mad about the food here—always have been—and the griddle-cooked, thin crust pizza is a must order, even amongst an abundance of delicious menu choices. Not surprisingly, I like the most straightforward pie, the Margherita D.O.C. with creamy little pillows of buffalo mozzarella, plus tomato and basil. Everybody knows Mario outdoes himself turning simple Italian flavors and ingredients into magical food moments; the fact that he does this with pizza at Otto and the pie (in Downtown Manhattan!) only costs $11 is almost miraculous.

Lil’ Frankies: Sometimes Erin and I meet here on Tuesdays for an early dinner, before she heads to Piano’s for her man’s music show. We both love the Angelina: chewy, pillow-y crust topped with mozzarella, sliced cherry tomatoes & bright, spicy arugula. It’s like a salad atop a yummy, baked bread. For pizza, it’s pretty light, leaving the option to share some Zucca Al Forno (roasted butternut squash with parmigiano cheese) as a side. This is also the best late night, restaurant pizza in my neighborhood.

Two Boots: First, I must confess my devotion to Two Boots is derived, in part, from the fact that the owner, Phil, is a great guy and a huge booster for my favorite neighborhood organization, The Lower Eastside Girls Club. In fact, Two Boots sponsored the club’s Mardi Gras Benefit last week, at which Kimberly, Sara and I partied in masquerade for a good cause. I spent some time in the store on Bleecker Street, leading up to the event, helping to promote ticket sales, and the atmosphere there is so friendly! The walls are covered with colorful artwork and the pizza smells fantastic; no wonder there were so many families that came through. I’m a big fan of the New Orleans-meets-Italy concept behind the pies and other menu items. My favorite slice is the Tony Clifton: a thin, cornmeal crust topped with mozzarella, wild mushrooms, vidalia onions, and drizzles of sweet red pepper pesto.

Artichoke: The long lines haven’t abated, even though this place has been open for a couple of years now. The trickiest part of enjoying this pizza is that you have to take it somewhere; there is absolutely nowhere to enjoy it in the tiny storefront. And it’s almost impossible (for me) to eat it without a fork; it’s a monster. You will wait for this pizza, sometimes in the rain or in the cold, and a single slice will equate, calorically, to an entire Thanksgiving meal. But it is a singular pizza experience. The signature artichoke slice uses a crisp, buttery crust as a base for a sloppy, insanely creamy, spinach artichoke “dip,” baked until the acidic chokes burst beneath rich béchamel-style sauce, the integrity of which is held together by a slightly crunchy, baked cheese top. It’s unusual and epic.

pizzaStromboli: This is a classic E. Village, open-all-night slice joint. It offers the perfect example of how spoiled New Yorkers are—that this kind of hole in the wall serves better pizza on its worst day than the best of what’s available in most other places, where Domino’s is the definition of pizza. The Margarita slice is my absolute go-to: tons of garlic, plump San Marzano-type tomatoes, wisps of basil and salty mozzarella on a thin crust. It’s my favorite slice in a neighborhood that offers lots of options, in a city that features too many terrible Ray’s to count. On the West side, in Kimberly’s neighborhood, Bleeker Street offers a similar, and also wonderful Margarita slice, which I happen to know is her go-to pizza grub-hub.

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14 Responses to “Pizza Field Notes, by Celest”

  1. Kimberly Belle

    With few exceptions, I’m totally on board with Celest’s recommendations, though I do not love Motorino. I think the pizza is too heavy and wet…there’s a real crust problem. Perhaps I’m just bemoaning the loss of Una Pizza Napoletana, but I don’t think so. Speaking of crust, Co.’s got the best in town, which is a Chelsea spot I would definitely add to this list. Celest wasn’t wowed by neighborhood newcomer, Keste, but ambiance aside, anything covered in Buffalo Mozzarella is fine by me. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to Soho favorites Lombardi’s and Famous Ben’s. Sometimes all I need is one grease soaked, cheese laden, perfect NYC slice!

  2. Kimberly Belle

    Oh, and how could I forget Franny’s?!?!? Brooklyn’s finest! Xo

  3. Another Southerner (Chris)

    This is all good to know! Noted in the book of pizza joints to hit up next time in the city.

    Personally, I like a long, wide, thin crust pizza like shown above. Great personal descriptions!

  4. Ann

    Somewhat off the beaten path… Peppino’s in Park Slope has a Pizza alla Vodka that’s to die for. Or at least to get delivered.

  5. jon urbana

    watch our for con artists. they are often sociopaths. i should know

  6. Kimberly Belle

    Another pizza tip: though not yet taste tested, I am DYING to try Kieth McNally’s latest joint with Nate Appleman slinging pizzas behind a wood-fired stove on Bowery & Houston. Pulino’s Bar & Pizzeria opens next week!!!

  7. Caroline

    Everyone knows that the best pizza in this city is DiFara and has been since 1964. You guys don’t even mention Dom? You call yourselves “foodies”? You should be ashamed. And what about Lucali at the very least? East Village hipsters is what you are. More interested in how you look eating your pizza than anything else. Depressing. I randomly went to Stromboli’s last week and it tasted like cardboard and melted plastic. At least if you’re going to mention a slice place, you could give Joe’s on Bleecker a shout out. Don’t write about pizza if you don’t know anything about it other than what you read in NY Magazine and what you can walk to from your apartment.

  8. Natalie

    As an NYU graduate and a former East Village resident, I have done extensive field research in hipsterdom, and let me just say that neither of these ladies qualify. And I think “ashamed” is a strong word to use for differing tastes in pizza.

  9. Caroline

    You’re right. Hipster was too colorful a word. As an NYU graduate and downtowner myself, I would call them yupster poseurs. The gastronomic glitterati thing is so embarrassing. I keep wanting to send this site to my friends at Gawker to make fun of, but I feel like it doesn’t deserve the free PR. It will just have to be my own personal guilty pleasure.

  10. K

    Caroline, I’m thrilled to know that you are acting as the Poseur Police for Gawker! What a job for an NYU grad. And I can see why they’d be attracted to your highly creative food writing–”…tasted like cardboard and melted plastic…”–no cliches there!

  11. Caroline

    Oh, she can’t read!! It’s so sad. I don’t work for Gawker, sweetheart. Try again. Another small note: isn’t it “too many PIXELS, too little time”? I love this blog!

  12. Michael

    Caroline, you’re an incredibly angry person. I don’t believe you have friends at all.

  13. Sally

    Micheal, even if she didn’t have any friends, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a point. I think this blog is part train wreck, part vanity project. I would be embarrassed to tell anyone I read this. I love the fact that anytime someone post something on here negative, the belle family and friends all of a sudden have something to say. you dopes would be best served by not feeding the trolls. no pun intended.

  14. Bathmate

    totally cool blog, i’ll come back for sure for your next post!

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