Brooklyn’s most meteoric restaurant success in the last decade was Roberta’s. Starting out as a modest pizzeria with a wood-burning oven in an obscure corner of Bushwick, it swelled into an empire. Who can fault other rustic Naples-style pizzerias for trying to duplicate that success? Since Roberta’s founding in 2008, copycats have appeared in gentrifying Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods: Saraghina in Bed-Stuy (2009), Barboncino in Crown Heights (2011), Houdini Kitchen Laboratory in Ridgewood (2013), and Union Pizza Works in Bushwick (2014). Now a new one has sprung up, spinning tasty wood-fired pies.
Santa Panza materialized at the end of 2016 on a remote stretch of Broadway on the Bushwick/Bed-Stuy border, where subway tracks clatter noisily overhead, blotting out the sky. Not long ago the neighborhood mainly hosted 99 cent stores and second-hand appliance refurbishers, trailing ranges and refrigerators along the sidewalk. Now there’s a new hotel across the street, hipster bars in the immediate vicinity, and a fast-casual café nearby specializing in bao sandwiches. The three owners — Pietro Hebel, Giovanni Gelfini, and Clement Chabernaud — cut their eyeteeth at Saraghina and Union Pizza Works.
In fact, the interior of Santa Panza ("holy belly") will remind you of Saraghina: A serpentine layout with improvised furniture and whitewashed wall twists and turns through a barroom, open kitchen, blackened oven defended by a wall of huge tomato cans, and back dining room, culminating in a backyard seating area. The rear dining room proves the most comfortable, pin-drop quiet and decorated with topographic maps of obscure places like Port Taranaki, New Zealand. If you are geographically challenged about your exact location in Bushwick, the maps will confuse you further.
The core menu is unambitious, suggesting that maybe Santa Panza is happy to be and remain a pizzeria. Eight pies are available in two sizes: six inches ($7 to $9) and 12 inches ($12 to $16). A little quick math will tell you that the smaller pies cost about 18 cents per square inch, with the bigger ones around 9 cents. Yes, the big pies are twice as good a deal. However, the small pies allow you to try more of them. They also provide a larger proportion of the smoky crust that is the real payoff of these pizzas, which provide a meager quantity of toppings. That’s the aesthetic and it certainly improves profitability.
Stippled with char, those crusts are superb, with an ethereal lightness and no yeasty aftertaste. The ones I liked best were the Napoli, pungent with Kalamata olives and anchovies, reminding us how Neapolitans love sharp flavors; and the self-named Santa Panza, which features pungent scamorza cheese in addition to the creamy and mellow buffalo mozzarella that stealthily appears on most pies unannounced on the menu. It also boasts crumbled Italian sausage and sage — making the pie seem more Tuscan than Neapolitan.
Come to think of it, the ortolana, featuring roasted vegetables, and the salame picante, are also good choices. The second accomplishes the move of putting soppressata — a dried pork sausage adored by Brooklyn Italian-Americans, many of whom came originally from Apulia — right on a pizza. This is also the restaurant’s meatiest pie.
There are a few salads and starters, as well as cheese and charcuterie platters, all perfectly adequate. One menu novelty is the burrata appetizer ($12), which features a large lump of cheese, bread, and slices of ham or salami depending on the cook’s whim, making a nice combination while fulfilling your cheese and charcuterie needs simultaneously. Tasting mildly of smoke, the vegetable apps also make good starters, including one of zucchini in a caper-bearing tomato sauce ($11), and a spinach casserole dabbed with béchamel that does a convincing imitation of a steakhouse side.
But you’re actually better off going directly to the specials menu — with a half-dozen choices per evening — for your antipasti. One evening there was a starter of cotecchino, a large-bore pork and pork rind cooked sausage and a powerful garlic bomb, served with miniature lentils on a puck of polenta. Superb! Another time there was a salad that featured oven-roasted fruit, tart and crisp-skinned, though not quite enough of it.
Any of the risotto specials are great, too, including one that featured a scoop of chicken-liver mousse on top. But the most appealing special of all, and the best dish I ate at Santa Panza, was a special pizza. It presented thin slices of porchetta — another meat almost never seen on pizza — curling on top, along with pickled artichokes, fontina and mozzarella, and fresh oregano ($16). The special represented the kind of clever and aggressive pie making that characterized Roberta’s in its early days and made me resolve to return to Santa Panza again.
Cost: Dinner for two, including one antipasto, one special main course, one large pie, and a bottle of wine, plus tax but not tip, $90.
Sample dishes: Napoli pizza (capers, olives, and anchovies), burrata of the day, roasted beets, risotto alla erbe.
What to drink: For a pizzeria, the wine list is well-chosen, but not inexpensive. Classic pizza wine in Italy is a fizzy chilled red like Lambrusco or Gragnano; a Lambrusco better than it needs to be is on the list at Santa Panza ($38). A liter of the house Pinot Grigio ($32) is also a good choice. For a splurge, an excellent $44 bottle of red Ramitello from Molise is available. Draft, bottled, and canned beer can also be had.
Bonus tip: Don’t carry this sort of pizza out, order it for delivery, or eat it the next day for breakfast: It’s so much better on the premises hot out of the oven.