Eater NY critic Robert Sietsema gives two new places a first glimpse.
The public’s appetite for small expensive pizzas cooked in a wood oven along Neapolitan lines seems only to be growing. When these pies first appeared here in 1996 at the Flatiron’s La Pizza Fresca, they engendered little response from New Yorkers, who thought their own bigger, lusher, cheaper pies were sufficient. But gradually, these pizzas caught on, with their smokiness, glove-like softness, and more austere and refined toppings.
Soon, such newfangled pizzerias as Franny’s, Una Pizza Napoletana, Motorino, and Roberta’s were packing them in nightly. This popularity was abetted by a new tolerance for wood-burning ovens on the part of city officials, the same tolerance that has made real barbecue a reality here; by the increased availability of imported ingredients such as buffalo mozzarella, super-fine flours, and premium canned Italian tomatoes; and by customers’ willingness to pay bistro prices for what was formerly a plebian foodstuff.
So popular are these small Neapolitan pies that two new pizzerias serving them have opened within a week of each other in the East Village. Here are some notes on first visits to both places on successive evenings.
Via Della Pace Pizza is named after a two-block street in Rome’s historic central district. Located on St. Marks Place just west of Tompkins Square, it is the descendant of a like-named Italian restaurant on East 7th Street known at least partly for its quaintness. The menu is a glossy broadsheet covered with 19th century Roman engravings; the restaurant itself, clad in bare brick, is mainly decorated with shelves filled with wine bottles, books, and knickknacks, like someone’s tenement living room. Wine by the glass is available at bargain rates, and $8 gets you a generous pour of chianti or $10 one of lambrusco. Unfortunately, the former was served at an ambient temperature of around 80 degrees. Cool it down, boys!
The pies — which issue from a wood-burning oven at the end of the room — are very good. Two friends and I wolfed down a margherita ($13) that was made with fine-textured flour, nicely browned along the circumference, damp in the middle with plain-ish pureed tomatoes, and boasting a nice quantity of American-style mozzarella, which the menu refers to by its Italian name, fiore de latte ("flower of milk"). Equally as good was a pie quizzically called Tito (shown above), which has a margherita base, upon which arugula, shaved parmigiana, and the dried beef called bresaola are applied after the thing comes out of the oven.
We tried a third pie, this one a little more unusual. The Gio! ($16, punctuation theirs) features mozzarella, potatoes, baked ham, and rosemary. A confusing document, the menu lists 32 pies with topping combinations that overlap, though most of the toppings are conventional and fall within a narrow range. Pies can also be made with whole wheat flour. In such a large field, you can find a few absurdist pies, such as the Caligola (the Italian spelling of Caligula), which melts together both mozzarella and burrata into what must be a soupy mess. The restaurant characterizes its pies as Roman, but they seemed to be entirely Neapolitan. The designation "Roman" often signifies a crust that is thin, stiff, and cracker-like, such as those at Marta or Otto. Visit Rome, and you’ll find a wide array of pizza styles being sold.
The pizzas at Via Della Pace are priced a bit cheaper than average. Where the place goes off the rails is among its apps. A caprese salad ($12), for example, cuts a red, mushy tomato horizontally in half, sticks some mozzarella smeared with pesto in the middle, and then mounts it on a nest of wiry fried noodles, making it seem Greek or maybe Cantonese. The promise of an artichoke flan ($15) makes you think of the brilliant Florentine dish sformato — a wiggly, upward-tapering, custard-like cylinder usually based on tomato or some other vegetable, served cold. What arrived was a baked mass of fibers that was mainly vegetable matter and nearly impossible to chew. Other apps sound more promising, and remember that the restaurant is in its early days and these problems are easily remedied. And the pizzas are quite good. 130 St Marks Pl, (212) 466-4686.
Bruno Pizza is a new establishment on 13th Street just off 3nd Avenue, also in the East Village. The interior is deep and stark white, and a dark photo of a sculpture of a human figure, really just a mysterious cloak, looms on one wall as decoration. The figure turns out to be the restaurant’s namesake, Giordano Bruno, a 16th century Dominican priest, poet, philosopher, and mathematician who is a perpetual favorite of college students studying philosophy and comp lit. He was burned at the stake in 1600 for claiming that Jesus was not divine, among other heresies.
So what’s all this have to do with pizza? Well, nothing really, except perhaps you might say a little prayer for Bruno as the pies fly out of the flaming oven slightly charred. At least partly descended from the popular restaurant Box Kite, this is a parlor intent on rewriting the book on how pizzas are made, and especially how they’re topped, taking the entire farmers’ market as inspiration for its wildly experimental forays, and grinding its own flour. This, of course, could turn out bad, and the pizzas actually taste much better than they read in print. In fact, of the three that some friends and I tried recently, all were distinguished, and I’d order every one of them again.
The margherita ($13) makes some modest innovations on an already perfect original, by fermenting its big tomato chunks slightly, resulting in richness rather than sourness. It also adds lovage to the herb bouquet, which is not a bad idea for those who have become slightly burned out on the perpetual conjoinment of tomato and basil. Summer greens ($16) is perhaps the lushest and wildest of the pizzas, incorporating carrot-top pesto, in line with the current passion for the nose-to-tail vegetable eating. It also flaunts ricotta, zucchini, chile flakes, and noodlefish, which are tiny translucent (sustainable) smelts that look more like grated cheese. Wild, huh?
The third pie we tried, country ham, featured Kentucky ham, peaches, flat-leaf parsley, and cured green onions, and seemed intended to evoke the idea of what pizza might have been like had it been invented in the American South. The peaches didn’t bother me one bit. Every pie seems to have a group of ingredients that work in concert, and one that purposely strives against them, turning each pie into a narrative. The restaurant is gradually adding pastas to its bill of fare, including a creamy bucatini swimming in creamed corn, celery, squash blossoms, and sliced squash, decorated with bright pink nasturtiums; and a cevatappi (like grooved and curled elbow macaroni) with smoked bone marrow, baby clams, and toasted bread crumbs, the combination of which is positively Portuguese.
But, the most astonishing part of Bruno Pizza is the salads, which look so good on the plate that it might have been their entire message. Market cucumber ($12) is a collection of contrasting cucumbers, including one the size of a baby’s pinky, arrayed across the plate with a refreshing buttermilk-tapioca dressing, while fairytale eggplant incorporates miniature eggplants in black cashew butter (move over, squid ink!) with smoked nuts, "edible yeast," and roasted shishito peppers, in case you thought Asia was being neglected in this wild scrum of vegetables, herbs, and nuts that constitute Bruno’s salad section.
Finally, there’s the simplest of all, a starter of radishes and butter arranged across the plate like a series of Pollack splatters. Only this tastes different than the standard French bistro app: green-pea tendrils curl across the plate and the butter has been flavored with funky gorgonzola. Can Bruno keep innovating with this intensity and creativity as its menu unfolds, inspired by an incinerated Catholic mathematician? Hopefully, yes. 204 E 13th St, (212) 598-3080