Matt Hyland might not be the city’s most esteemed pizzaiolo, but it’s hard to think of a figure more committed to the city’s regional pie craze. With Emily in Clinton Hill, he attracted three hours waits for his hybrid New York-New Haven pies, boasting a chew and char meant to evoke the coal-fired apizzas of Connecticut. With his growing Emmy Squared chain, he helped propagate a local love for Detroit pies, famous for their fried-cheese crusts that shatter like blow-torched sugar. And now at Violet in the East Village, Hyland is representing for yet another very specific style: the grilled pies of Al Forno’s in Providence, Rhode Island.
Violet does, of course, offer non-pizza dishes. The restaurant leans towards seafood, including baked clams overpowered by smoky sausages, and it also offers a run-of-the-mill baked pasta with vodka sauce. But make no mistake: The pies, of which there are seven, are the main event. They were the force behind Pete Wells’ lovely (but measured) one star review. They are why you’ll face a proper wait for bar seats on any given weeknight.
They are not very good pizzas.
Before we get into why, here’s a little bit about how the pie process works: A chef quickly burnishes the dough over the flames — about thirty seconds or so — applies the toppings, and then places it back over the heat until finished. It then goes out to the tables with a pair of scissors for cutting.
This is where the problems start. The snipping can be tough with the shaky pizza racks and cramped quarters. Think of this as a two-person job, with one person holding the pie for stability while another human works the shears.
The airy crust could easily stand alone as a flatbread course at any new restaurant, the chemical sting of the grill notwithstanding. The naturally leavened sourdough starter allows for a round, full-flavor. It boasts a texture that ranges from thin and crispy like a Roman pie to as soft and doughy as a New York slice.
But the pizza will also be saturated with heavy, unbalanced toppings. And this is where the problems grow. So much of what Hyland anoints his pies with seems designed to make the diner forget about the fine bread rather than to show it off.
The classic — a mix of (overly sweet) tomato, havarti, and scallions ($17) — isn’t so much a study in margherita-like balance as it is an exhibition of excess oil and overpoweringly aromatic cheese. Richness is what holds back the ‘nduja pie as well ($22). Dots of soft calabrian sausage provide requisite salt and smoke, while spring leeks counter with a clever source of sweetness. So far, so good. Then there’s this gratuitous pool of oil spilling across the pie. It imparts a very gentle level of heat and buzz, a small upside for the world of unnecessary fat it adds.
Uniformity of flavor ends up being the issue with the duck prosciutto pizza ($22), which involves the use of sweet hoisin sauce to counteract the salinity and musk of cured meat and clams. It’s a pairing meant to evoke a Peking duck wrap, the dough substituting for a steamed pancake and frizzled leeks standing in for poultry skin. The pairing is a smart one; the execution is where things fail. Some bites contain no hoisin at all, while others are overwhelmingly sweet.
But perhaps no other pie disrespects the dough — or its signature topping — more other than the “achaarlic bread” ($10), a pun on garlic bread and achar, the famed pickles of the Indian subcontinent. Thing is, pickles in any country’s cuisine are typically used to add flavor, salt, and acidity to a fatty or starchy item. It is the supporting player, and in theory could make a fine match for pizza. Here at Violet, though, the garlic achar takes the lead role. This would be fine if the portion were modest, and not spread in such a thick, pungent layer that it feels more designed for an American dare-style eating contest (how much pickle can you handle, bro) than anything anyone would want more than a single bite of.
Pizza passions can run high so let me stress the following: The chief issue isn’t that Al Forno-esque pizza doesn’t deserve a place here in New York, quite the contrary; locals have shown themselves to fall in love quickly with new styles. The chief issue is that Violet’s pizza isn’t good, at least not yet. So until Hyland figures out how to balance toppings with more elegance, keep the oil (and sweetness) levels in check, and employ a grill with more subtle flavors, I’m calling the pizzas here a SELL.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a single dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (or just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).