If you wanted to dismiss Leuca offhand, you just say it’s just another Italian restaurant in Brooklyn. But I assure you, there’s more to it than that. Leuca is the first Brooklyn restaurant by Andrew Carmellini, one of Manhattan’s most notable Italian-American chefs. Leuca, located in Brooklyn, arguably this country’s capital of pizza, is the first Andrew Carmellini restaurant to regularly serve pizza. Leuca, a big-deal Manhattan chef’s first restaurant in Brooklyn, a borough known for its restraint and respect for the past, serves its Neapolitan pies at the bottom of a chic new hotel where a two-night weekend stay runs about $800. Takeout is not available, which is just as well, because Leuca does not make terribly good pizza.
Back in his days running Cafe Boulud, Carmellini oversaw some of New York’s most groundbreaking chefs — Rich Torrisi, Mario Carbone, and David Chang, among others — working in his kitchen. In the years since he’s branched out to launch his own empire. His restaurants (with one exception), aren’t so much groundbreaking as they are reliably delicious, which is no less a virtue: He hawks fare like malty fleur de sel pretzels at Lafayette, saucy "grandmother’s ravioli" at Locanda Verde, and a dish of linguine with four cloves of garlic at Bar Primi. He’s done well with reliably delicious.
But pizza is a different ballgame. Testing out your first-ever pizza restaurant in Brooklyn is like testing out a smoked beet dish in Copenhagen: It’s not the most forgiving training ground. Never mind the far-flung titans like Di Fara on Avenue J, Lucali in Carroll Gardens, Totonno’s in Coney Island — Leuca is less than a ten-minute bike ride from Best Pizza or Williamsburg Pizza, two of the city’s most heralded slice joints, or a seven minute trip from Motorino, known for slinging some of New York’s most stunning Neapolitan pies.
How does Leuca’s classic margherita measure up? It’s fine, which isn’t enough. The crust is nicely formed, but it doesn’t have the depth or complexity that sparks a conversation with your server about breadmaking or starter doughs. The sauce is tangy, but it doesn’t sing with electric acidity or the fruity aroma of tomatoes. The mozzarella is stretchy and salty, but it doesn’t blossom with the concentrated milkiness of its higher quality counterparts, fior di latte or mozzarella di bufala.
So, pass on the pizza. But nor is Leuca going to be your go-to for Southern Italian food, which fills the rest of the menu. It’s a perfectly acceptable option if you’re staying at the hotel, and it’s raining outside, and you don’t feel like exploring the rest of New York City for more inspired fare. That scenarios aside, it’s not where you want to be.
Set on concrete stilts twenty meters above North 12th Street in Williamsburg, three blocks in from the waterfront, the William Vale offers occupants of its rooms uninterrupted vistas of Midtown Manhattan, the architectural equivalent of a child sitting on his mother’s shoulders at a baseball game, ensuring a fine view for herself but blocking the sightlines for others.
This is a restaurant review, not a meditation on urban planning, but failing to discuss the William Vale Hotel and what it symbolizes for the future of Kings County would be akin to reviewing the hot dogs at Yankee Stadium without talking about baseball.
If Brooklyn, as a brand, manifests itself as a hybrid of a fanatical love for the past, a DIY ethos, and a healthy chip on the shoulder, then the William Vale, a blocky spaceship hovering above the landscape, is everything but. The months-old hotel feels like an illogical next step for this slice of North Brooklyn, the neighborhood that NYU’s Urban Studies center identified last year as New York City’s overall most gentrified.
The story of Williamsburg as a locus of hipsterdom begins decades ago, but the neighborhood’s big moment came in 2005, when the city rezoned the warehouse-filled, post-industrial waterfront for residential use. Chic, glassy apartment buildings sprang up, and the well-heeled twenty- and thirty-somethings who could afford to inhabit them provided the customer base for a strip of restaurants along Wythe and Kent, including the now-closed Isa (where Estela’s Ignacio Mattos Rose to fame), and the original Aska, one of the area’s first tasting menu spots.
At the same time, ignominies and disparities became impossible to ignore. Rents in Williamsburg and Greenpoint skyrocketed, going up 78.7 percent from 1990 to 2014. The area’s formerly robust Hispanic population dwindled, forced out to more affordable parts of Brooklyn and Queens as rents rose, and the neighborhood got whiter and richer.
Many of the new waterfront apartment buildings, interchangeable towers of glass and steel, rose high enough to block views of Manhattan, a cold contrast to the brick-walled, low-slung warehouses they stood alongside. Brooklyn Bowl, with its handsome exterior, felt like a gift at first, until the introduction of nightly cover charges essentially made it one of the city’s most expensive venues for knocking down pins. The Wythe Hotel opened, and quickly became famous for Reynard, a ground-floor restaurant with an excellent natural wine program, as well as its perennial around-the-block lines to get into the elevator for the rooftop bar.
Now there’s the William Vale, another hotel taking advantage of the neighborhood’s cool-kid cachet. Unlike the Wythe, whose casement windows and dark color palette are a new-construction nod to the vanishing old, the William Vale features sleek airport-style sliding doors opening up to a white, sterile lobby that never seems to have anyone in it (unless, of course, you count the line to get into the elevator for the rooftop bar). An art installation sprawling up the back wall of the lobby is supposed to represent Brooklyn. The title of the work is "Mannahatta."
It’s against this bourgeois backdrop that one considers Leuca. Restaurants, of course, are often studies in escapism, and Leuca delivers in that regard: It’s a Williamsburg restaurant pretending to be a stadium-sized spot in the Meatpacking District. I sip at a $14 spritz, served in what appears to be an opaque, fish-shaped flower vase and observe its largely windowless main room, filled with comfy brown banquettes, brown wood walls, brown wood floors, and four uncomfortably oversized photos of a little blonde girl making faces.
A waiter burdens our table with a few pounds of hot pork. This is the festa de maiale, a suckling pig whose skin is aggressively bronzed and whose somewhat unevenly cooked flesh is disappointingly under-salted. A pool of caper honey adds a touch of sweet zing to the musky flesh, but really, for $72 (this is the restaurant’s most expensive dish), you expect more careful cooking and seasoning. Large format dishes like this one make up half of the menu’s six mains; if you’re not dining alone, you can enjoy a $48 chicken for two (remember when chicken used to be a solo item?) and a $68 lamb, and if you’d like to bring the sharing ethos with you into the dessert course, an oversized riff on an affogato called the Sophia Loren.
Really, there’s not a whole lot to say about the food here, a sentiment that appears to be shared with whoever writes the menu: dish names occasionally lack any meaningful descriptions. That chicken for two, for example, is prepared "rosalina" style (this turns out to mean lemon and oregano). Lobster "in purgatorio" is a basic chile-and-butter topping for the crustacean; about par with a similar version I had at a restaurant I stumbled across in Washington back in 2002. And steak "vesuvius" takes the form of a New York strip topped with a cross between a salsa rosso and a romesco sauce; the garnish is a brilliant balance of heat, acid, and sugar, but the thin, under-charred, one-note beef diverts this interpretation of the Italian-American culinary experience through a detour at Applebee’s.
Carmellini loves to pair squid ink pasta with calamari. He’s served mind-bending riffs on that matchup at his other restaurants, sometimes adding a bit of chorizo or bacon jam for smoky, spicy overtones. But at Leuca, he pairs black shells and pedestrian calamari with a thin, sleepy tomato sauce. He also gives New Yorkers what might be our thousandth iteration of sea urchin spaghetti over the past twelve months, which would be fine it it were an improvement upon all the rest. Sadly, Lecua’s feels as if it were slicked with Elmer’s glue.
These are the type of pasta dishes that make you miss the compelling reliability of Locanda Verde or Bar Primi; in fact, Leuca as a whole makes you wish this was another outpost of the Dutch, Carmellini’s most Brooklyn-esque restaurant, which happens to be in Soho. There, Carmellini’s kitchen espouses a style of multiculturalism — a Latin-inflected take on tripe, Korean-inspired fried rice, matzoh ball soup, lamb neck mole, Caribbean goat pie — that still feels ahead of its time. Looking at the lay of the land in North Williamsburg, whose string of capable restaurants nevertheless feel somewhat monochromatic, and where there’s no shortage of Italian options, it’s hard not to wonder if the Dutch would’ve been a better fit. Alas, an Italian restaurant is what Carmellini — and his partners in the hotel — have given us.
The good news, at least, is that Leuca throws together some pretty great dips, from a silky chickpea spread with bottarga (though the bottarga appears in name only, don’t expect much of its briny-sour tang) to a milky scoop of honey-topped ricotta. The raw tuna with green olives, chile, and crispy farro is serviceable, while the obligatory smoked beets taste like a phoned-in dish that couldn’t quite fit on the menu at Little Park, Carmellini’s lovely, vegetable-heavy hangout in lower Manhattan. The one don’t-miss dish is Leuca’s riff on Caesar salad: a mound of fire-roasted cabbage leaves, charred and then enlivened with lemon, parmesan and anchovy.
It’s also worth noting that my first bite of Carmellini’s pesto pasta among the best culinary experiences I’ve had over the past year. Just the first bite, though — the rest of the dish revealed itself to be strikingly unbalanced. The noodles are malfadini, long ruffled ribbons, cooked to an al dente density that almost feels like udon. The kitchen tosses the strands in a rapini pesto, twirls it all together in a bowl, and garnishes the verdant pasta with viridian sweet-and-sour peppers: all the colors of the Italian flag in a bowl. The first bite is truly stunning, a shock of bitter from the broccoli rabe offset by the sugars and acid of the peppers.
But as you eat more, you’ll realize the sauce is a touch heavy, perhaps because the pasta isn't hot enough. And there aren’t quite enough peppers to include them in every bite, which means that the pesto’s bitterness starts to prevail, and the dish loses its footing. In the end, I found myself dredging the noodles through the remains of my starter of ricotta dip, though not voluntarily: Our server failed to change out the share plates between courses. (Service was generally impeccable over my five visits, but on this particular night, it took the staff about two courses to take and deliver a drink order)
I’ve heard nice things about the soft serve at Mr. Dips, Carmellini’s other William Vale venture, an outdoor burger stand that’s currently closed for the season, and I’m keen to try the donuts that Wylie Dufresne will soon start serving on the hotel’s ground floor later this winter. But for now, I’d advise patrons to skip Leuca’s generic dessert offerings, from the supermarket-bland chocolate pudding, to the $11 cheesecake that’s leaden as any version sold under glass at a neighborhood diner. If you want that family-sized Sophia Loren affogato, which runs nearly $20 after tax and tip, it’s reasonably tasty; the coffee-drenched sundae is loaded with assorted gelati, rum granita, caramel crumble, and meringue. But call me old school — I’m more of an affogato-for-one type of guy.
Cost: Small plates: $8-$17. Pizza: $15-$18. Pasta: $17-$26. Mains: $31-$72
Sample dishes: Sheep’s milk ricotta with honey and garlic, fire-roasted cabbage, chickpea spread. If you must get a pizza, the mushroom is the way to go.