Upscale pizza parlors that serve small pies with large price tags have long been one of the earliest engines of gentrification, and this is especially true in Brooklyn. Franny’s in Prospect Heights, Roberta’s in Bushwick, Motorino in East Williamsburg, Saraghina in Bed-Stuy, and Barboncino in Crown Heights are all examples of pizzerias that led small real estate revolutions in their respective neighborhoods. Somehow, when a Naples-style pizzeria appears, cheap neighborhood pizzas begin to disappear along with cheap rents.
Now, on the stretch of Flatbush Avenue that connects Prospect-Lefferts Gardens to the north with Flatbush to the south, two new upmarket pizzerias have appeared in the last month. This shopper-thronged area is currently home to Jamaican patty bakeries, Trinidadian roti shops, 99-cent stores, hair salons offering Dominican cuts, botanicas selling devotional candles and saints’ images, jerk chicken stalls, vegetable stands specializing in tubers and roots, and vendors of wigs in a startling array of styles and colors. Will these new pizzerias eventually affect the mix of businesses along this strip and the affordability of area apartments? Hopefully not, because most of the pies are well worth eating.
Three friends and I went to sample the new pizzas this last Saturday around 7 p.m., as a cool wind scooted down the thoroughfare and many businesses were pulling down their gates for the evening. The first place we stopped was ZuriLee Pizza Bar, an offshoot of Mangoseed, a nearby restaurant merging Caribbean and African-American cuisines. The interior of ZuriLee flaunts a big mural that splashes one wall with pastel colors, a long bar with tangled light fixtures overhead, and notably uncomfortable tables made from sliced and shellacked logs. Invented cocktails are an important part of the alcohol program, and we ordered one called a caprese ($12), which sported a cherry tomato, basel leaf, and hunk of mozzarella.
A few entrees, apps, and sandwiches are offered, many as unusual as the cocktails — including edamame with truffle oil, and a jerk chicken parm hero — but my friends and I concentrated on the pizzas. First up, in an apparent nod to the Trinidadians in the neighborhood, was something called "bake + salt fish / marinara" ($10). It proved to be a small, round, thick flatbread known in Trinidad as a "bake" surmounted by a stew of salt cod. This pushes the envelope as to what a pizza is, but the pie was delicious just the same, and a good deal given the amount of salt cod.
Two other pies followed in quick succession, both with conventional Naples-style crusts, charred here and there and a little on the doughy side. The East Flatbush ($14) came topped with mozzarella, parmesan, tomato sauce, corn, and cubes of jerk chicken. It was fine, but not spectacular, and the corn was a weird touch. Once again with strange typography, the "bre[a]d 4" ($18) was in a "meat-lover’s-delight" vein, sporting pepperoni, bresaola, and lamb, an ungainly combo you’re not likely to find anywhere else, and damned good! As we finished our pies, smacking our lips, we noted that the place was about half full. 755 Flatbush Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 856-6900
By contrast, the next pizzeria almost two blocks north was thronged with people when we arrived around 8 p.m. At Parkside (the name refers to the cross street) a long bar is once again the major feature of a plainish room with plenty of tables and little decoration, except for a profusion of dangling Edison bulbs and an antique mirror on the wall behind the bar. As with ZuriLee, the pizza menu at Parkside is notably sparse, with seven choices, of which we again chose three. Our favorite was a potato pie ($13) that came heaped with arugula, under which we discovered, in addition to the spuds, caciocavallo cheese. A spritz of lemon juice on top had done wonders for the pie.
Also on the slightly weird side was a pizza featuring mussels rather than the usual clams ($15), with a modest scatter of what tasted like canned smoked mussels, which added a pleasing BBQ savor to the pie, along with garlic and a salty toss of grana padano, which is like a poor man’s parmigiano-reggiano. The most arresting pie was one featuring lamb sausage ($14), causing us to scratch our heads till we figured out what the phantom flavor was. (It turned out to be fresh mint, startling and great.)
In similar fashion, each of the other pies at Parkside is slightly skewed in a chefly fashion from what you would normally expect, such as an olive pizza with braised fennel and pesto. Nevertheless, everything we tried was worth another taste. We washed the pizzas down with a fine bottle of Le Terrazze’s red Rosso Conero for the bargain price of $38 per bottle. Other wine selections are also slightly off-price, though the list is not long. 705 Flatbush Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 975-2628
Weird that two new upscale pizza parlors should open about the same time on the same strip in Brooklyn nieghborhood previously devoid of such institutions. Will they both survive and prosper? Will twee little haberdasheries and gift shops soon appear? Let’s watch and find out.