OF THE MOMENT The margherita at Lucali in Carroll Gardens.
INDISCRIMINATE gluttons and discerning gourmands alike have long been crazy for pizza. But over the last few years, they have elevated their passion to a vocation, sending pizza into a whole new stratosphere of respect. It isn’t just loved, and it isn’t just devoured. It’s scrutinized and fetishized, with a Palin-esque power to polarize.
Does a wood-burning brick oven yield more flavorful crusts than a coal-burning one? Which flour lends the most character to dough? Is buffalo-milk mozzarella a silky blessing or watery curse?
On such questions the most durable of friendships have foundered and the most principled of pizza makers — pizzaioli, they are now called — part company.
“We’ve gotten all of a sudden into this ‘authentic’ scenario,” said Michael Ayoub, owner of Fornino, a pizzeria in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, referring to the expanding legions of self-regarding artisans around town. “The only thing they haven’t brought over is the water from that polluted Bay of Naples.”
The flashiest restaurateurs want in on pizza; so do some of the most classically trained, critically acclaimed chefs. Stephen Starr, the owner of Buddakan and an owner of Morimoto, two of the grandest and gaudiest Asian restaurants in downtown Manhattan, has lately spent much of his time in New York eating his way through the city’s older and newer pizza parlors, on a gut-busting mission to figure out what works best and how to replicate it in Philadelphia, his base.
Pizza is the latest fascination of David Myers, a celebrated Los Angeles chef who has turned from progressive cuisine at Sona to mozzarella and San Marzano tomatoes at Pizzeria Ortica, which he opened early this year in Costa Mesa, Calif.
Pizza is the obsession of Mathieu Palombino, who once ran the kitchen at BLT Fish, an expensive Manhattan restaurant, but now steers Motorino, a modern pizza parlor in Williamsburg, that opened late last year. Jean-Georges Vongerichten, too, has gotten into the act. He’s an investor in Co., the Chelsea pizza place whose debut in January attracted the sort of food-world buzz once reserved for fussier fare.
Pizza connoisseurs bicker endlessly about where to find the best pies. And thanks to the brisk pace of high-profile openings in New York over the last few years — and especially the last six months — they have more serious local contenders than ever to bicker about.
STILL BUBBLING Lucali, in Carroll Gardens, bakes its pizzas in a wood-fired oven.
Many give the crown to Lucali, which opened in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, in 2006, and charges $34 (cash only!) for a pie with cheese, tomato, pepperoni and mushrooms. Others swear by Zero Otto Nove, which came along a bit later on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.
I’ve heard plugs for the misleadingly named Salvatore of SoHo, which began churning out coal-oven pies in a Staten Island strip mall last year, and for Kesté, which unveiled its gorgeous tiled oven in the West Village in March, a pizza-mad month when other instant favorites, including Anselmo’s, in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, made their debut.
Over recent weeks I visited those restaurants and others that belong to this current chapter in pizza worship.
I looked for the most dependable pizza verities and the most enjoyable pizzas, and didn’t confine myself to one style: Neapolitan, Roman (thinner, more crackerlike crusts) or Sicilian (deeper, though not deep-dish, pies).
I did, however, confine myself to places that have opened since 2004, the year that, by my reckoning, inaugurated the chapter in question. That was when Franny’s opened in the Prospect Heights section of Brooklyn and Una Pizza Napoletana fired up its oven in the East Village. Both brought a new kind of cachet (and vanity) to pizza making and pizza eating in this city. Both changed its demographics.
I did not include predecessors like Patsy’s, Grimaldi’s or Di Fara because they’re products of less self-conscious pizza times. Back then a dismissive telephone greeting like the one I once got at Una Pizza Napoletana (“Hello, Una Pizza, we don’t deliver!”) would have been more surprising, and a recording like the one at South Brooklyn Pizza, in Carroll Gardens, would have been laughable. The British-accented voice in that recording used the phrases “exclusive, votive-lit hideaway,” “hand-crafted” and “custom-made” in the span of 30 seconds, and mentioned an “1890s Napoleon brick oven,” creating ambiguity about whether an Italian region or French emperor was being referenced.
I paid special attention to places less than a year old. There are scads of them.
“The economy the way it is, pizza’s perfect,” said Mr. Starr, who noted that pizza is relatively gentle on the budgets of consumers and providers.
“I have training at high altitude, with all these big restaurants,” he said, “and this seems a lot easier — less money, less pressure. You’re concentrating on one thing rather than sous-chefs and pastry chefs.”
Casting pizza as art and fostering a cult around high-level pizza making are in the interest of food scribes, whether they work for established periodicals or self-financed blogs, because money is tight in those quarters, too, and it’s much more affordable to canvass the pizza landscape than to mull over Masa.
Pizza suits the casual ethos of the culinary moment, and it fits in with the intensifying reverence for all foods Italian. What’s a French-focused chef to do? Terrance Brennan’s answer at Bar Artisanal, which he opened in TriBeCa in April, is the pissaladière, the French version of pizza given little previous exposure.
On my pizza rounds I developed some firm convictions, but mostly saw that few rules can’t be contradicted, and few generalizations hold.
TOPIC FOR DISCUSSION: CRISPNESS Co. in Chelsea is run by a bread baker.
I believe by and large that Neapolitan pies — if they can avoid soupiness, as they did at Motorino — are the most appealing. Yet the pan pizzas at Veloce Pizzeria, which opened in the East Village a month and a half ago, pleased me every bit as much. Sara Jenkins, the chef who supervises their production, said she isn’t sure whether to call them Sicilian or grandma style. Whatever their proper tag, these denser, richer, square pies were superb. The nicely charred crust — with a dough of potato, durum and fine zero-zero flour — was firm enough to support a generous measure of toppings. Its extra-crisp edges had the salty, zingy flavor and texture of a frico. And the toppings were first-rate, the mushroom pizza showcasing a bevy of hen-of-the-woods.
I believe that firmer, less runny cheese works better most of the time, and yet the Pugliese pie at Motorino, which uses wet-centered burrata, was a masterpiece, the burrata lending the pie an opulence and creaminess.
Crisp crusts, it turns out, aren’t so difficult: most places I visited had mastered that much. But crusts that are crisp without being dry — that have some give and suppleness — are an altogether trickier matter. That’s where Lucali, for example, fell down, though the ratio of mozzarella to tomatoes on its plain pie was faultless, and the tomatoes had a beautiful, round flavor.
Crusts with character and complexity are also rare. Salvatore of SoHo, a charming restaurant whose flame-throwing coal oven gave its crusts a formidable char, was slightly disappointing on this score. The crusts were one-dimensional. And a pie that advertised sausage had precious little of it.
An attractively charred look doesn’t mean an appealingly charred taste, as Zero Otto Nove illustrated. Its pies were lovely to behold — and insipid to eat. Zero Otto Nove illustrated, too, that breathtaking ovens and grandly stated goals don’t guarantee excellence, or even enjoyment. I got almost no pleasure from the soggy pies at Kesté — including one with sausage that could have come from a Jimmy Dean’s freezer package — though Kesté, too, introduced itself as many discerning cuts above a run-of-the-mill slice joint.
Indeed, the wave of ostensibly principled pizza restaurants since 2004 has produced a mixed bag. Along the broad middle stretch of the spectrum, between undistinguished and outstanding, I’d place L’Asso, in NoLIta; Tonda, the East Village redo of the restaurant the E.U.; Toby’s Public House, in Greenwood Heights, Brooklyn, which has fine tap beers and a pubby warmth; and Luna Rossa, in Carroll Gardens, whose pies are the best in this little bunch.
I put Tonda in the bunch less for its pizza, which isn’t so distinctive, than for its attractive setting, attentive service and side notes like respectable salads and snacks. Such niceties matter: friends who accompanied me to multiple pizza places said they might be most likely to return to Roberta’s, in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, even though most of its pies were limp and otherwise flawed. They liked the hipster vibe and ultra-casual outdoor area.
The combination of an utterly soothing or attractive ambience and pizza to swoon over is uncommon, and just as uncommon is consistency, the quality that eludes and bedevils the sporadically transcendent, ultimately frustrating Co., for example.
Co. is the work, principally, of Jim Lahey, one of the city’s master bread makers. His best crusts have a flawless degree of saltiness and are spectacularly blistered. His best pizzas — for instance the popeye, which weds crisp spinach and a molten mix of three cheeses — reflect as much thought for the toppings as for their bed.
But his blisters sometimes cross the line into soot, and on the same recent day when I had yet another terrific popeye, I had an undercooked margherita with a few tiny, shriveled basil leaves and a stingy measure of tomato and cheese, too. What an odd pizza. What a strange place.
The popeye got me thinking about how much some great pizzas and some great salads have in common. The interplay of cheese, leafy green (or other vegetable) and crust in a pizza isn’t so fundamentally different from the interplay of leafy green, cheese and croutons in a salad. There’s just been a reallocation of the starring roles and cameos.
For that matter a great pizza and great pasta are kinfolk. What’s a margherita, after all, but a canvas for tomato, cheese and herb with less slickness, more crunch and more portability than noodles? Many of the flavors are the same.
And be it salad, pasta or pizza, the surest element of success is balance. For pizza that means crispness shouldn’t come at the expense of tenderness, the crust can’t steal the thunder from the toppings, and toppings can’t run roughshod over the crust.
As for toppings, they should add a whisper of sweetness or murmur of heat to the milky, tangy, wonderful white noise of cheese. All of the pizza places in my list of new-generation favorites understand this. And almost all of my favorite pies exemplify it.