The great pandemic pizza pivot is upon us, which is why gourmands might encounter a ranch-and-barbecue sauce pie at a tasting-menu venue, a green chorizo pizza at a heralded Italian spot, or a chimichurri-topped pie at a hip bagel shop. One wouldn’t fault cash-strapped operators for running illegal sports betting rings in the second year of a pandemic, so creative adaptations on a quintessential New York foodstuff shouldn’t feel like too much of a surprise.
The pivot to pizza, in short, is the recession special of our era; it’s a viable way to make spendy establishments more accessible, to pad a venue’s bottom line, and to show off market preparations in a way that’s well-suited to how we largely eat now: via takeout and delivery.
Having sampled 12 pies at five unlikely purveyors over the past week, I can affirm that the city is poised to benefit from such freewheeling pizza innovation, particularly at Washington Squares, a takeout-focused ghost kitchen where chef Dan Kluger dots mushroom pies with chile crisp, and at Momofuku Ko, where giant $28 pizzas serve as a reprieve from $255 tasting menus. The chefs at Peasant, Black Seed, and Il Buco Alimentari also put out estimable pizza.
To be clear, a cheffed-up pie with microgreens isn’t new or rare at a good New York restaurant; it’s just that the earlier pizza zeitgeist was increasingly dominated by high-minded pizzaiolos at dedicated shops, with bakers seeking truth in naturally leavened and high-hydration breads. But now, as patrons are less likely to cross town for a single pristine pie or slice, we’ve seen a small but growing collection of venues trying their hand at pizzas, sometimes offering up to eight or more varieties on takeout-focused menus.
Takeout, indeed, has been doing a lot of the heavy lifting to make fine dining more accessible during COVID-19. Even at moderately expensive a la carte venues, the ability to pick up a portion of tagliatelle without servers asking whether you’d like a bottle of pinot that costs twice as much makes those institutions entirely more user-friendly. Pizza pivots constitute a logical extension of this trend; a single pie rarely exceeds $30 and often functions as a standalone meal that doesn’t require the addition of sides or starters.
It also doesn’t hurt that pizza is particularly well-suited to off-premises dining. Few things are better than an oven-fresh pie, with woodsy smoke still wafting up from the crust, but as a general rule, good pizzas don’t degrade too much during delivery; they don’t tend to suffer the soggy fate of takeout nachos or fried calamari. Their starchy, cheesy architectures expertly affix ramps, pepperoni, or anything else to their ideal positions — more so than tweezer dishes relegated to plastic containers. And unlike a medium-rare steak that shouldn’t take any more heat, most pizzas — save perhaps an ethereal and moody margherita — can be resurrected after a few minutes in the oven.
The following pizzas, like virtually every other one I’ve sampled, arrived at my house suffering little discernible wear and tear. Keep in mind that all the venues listed below made some sort of pivot or expansion during the pandemic; check out Robert Sietsema’s review of Kimika for a look at a newer, pizza-centric spot.
Washington Squares at Loring Place
Dan Kluger, during his ABC Kitchen days, championed the complex wonders of whole wheat Neapolitan-ish pizzas, matching their natural sweetness with creative ingredient combinations. At Loring Place, he’s continuing that whole wheat ethos; diners there will encounter garlic, jalapenos, and Brussels sprouts sitting atop a single round pie. But the chef occasionally gets even more experimental with his takeout ghost kitchen, which he calls Washington Squares.
Kluger serves whole wheat grandma-style pizza here, a sturdy variant that’s also impressively light. The squares aren’t as airy as those at, say, a baker-centric spot like Bread & Salt, where the pizza can feel as weightless as a mini-croissant — but they’re definitely nimble enough to let you eat half a pie without feeling as if a Thanksgiving dinner is growing inside your belly. This is especially true of the tomato pie ($17), where the crust in parts seems to flaunt the delicate crunch of a good pretzel. The crushed pomodori sport the concentrated tang of tomato paste and boast a sweet-acidic punch that’s so electric one wonders whether the fruit was grown with German riesling instead of water. And the level of heat — the chiles sting your tongue for at least two minutes at a time — easily makes it one of the city’s spiciest pizzas.
The mushroom pie ($24) is a touch heftier, hiding milky splotches of soft ricotta underneath a layer of mozzarella; the dough exhibits a bit more chew with this pie, too. To keep things interesting, however, Kluger balances out the earthy funk of fungi and the fat of the dairy with dollops of his own chile crisp — it adds a sweet-tart kick. Or for something a bit more avant-garde, consider a studied riff on the classic arugula-prosciutto pie ($24). Kluger leaves the greens in a separate container; you’re instructed to toss them with vinaigrette and spread them all over the pie. The result is a gorgeous agrodolce masterpiece: cold, peppery, lemon-slicked greens countering the warm, salty slices of country ham slicked with sweet quince jam. 21 West Eighth Street, near Fifth Avenue, Greenwich Village.
From one point of view, Ko’s pizza program might be the most unexpected: It is a two-Michelin-starred, $255 tasting-menu restaurant pivoting to a shorter, mostly a la carte bill of fare (there’s also a $110 prix fixe). From another point of view, the experiment makes sense. Ko has a long track record of tweaking everyday fare — fried chicken, lobster rolls, pickle sandwiches — so why not sell a few barbecue chicken pizzas while normalcy is still a ways off? And quite frankly, why not keep doing this a year or two from now to prove that ambitious rustic fare deserves a seat at the table with, say, refined sauces that have been strained 80 times?
Chef Sean Gray’s pies are required eating for anyone who cares about good pizza. He mixes bread flour, whole wheat flour, and superfine 00 flour (to lighten the texture) for his pies, which he lets cook on the stone floor of a bread oven. The pizzas that come out exhibit a coarse mouthfeel on the bottom, and boast a light, non-glutinous chew that recalls a good New Haven-style pizza. For the spicy tomato pie ($28), he laces Stanislaus tomatoes with a bit of red wine to amp up the acidity, and throws in some very good capicola ham for salt and funk.
For something a bit more advanced, consider the tomato mustard pie ($28), an homage to the famous version from Papa’s in Trenton, New Jersey. Here, patrons get to enjoy sprawling patches of mozzarella that are spiked with enough mustard to clear your sinuses after every bite. It’s like eating pizza infused with Vicks VapoRub, but in a delicious, French-y way. Ko also serves California Pizza Kitchen-esque barbecue chicken pizza, which I also sampled, and which you’ll like if you hanker for a bit of cloying nostalgia. One late note: Ko has ended its takeaway and delivery program; anyone who wants these pies needs to come and sit outdoors — something not all diners might feel comfortable with yet. All prices are service-included. 8 Extra Place, near East First Street, East Village
“I love the flavor of Neapolitan but not the flop,” Peasant chef Marc Forgione told Grub Street in March. The chef accordingly mixes sourdough with Italian wheat, rice, and soy flours, resulting in a light crust with a dense, chewy lip. The tip of each slice still sags a touch, which is nothing to complain about, while the toppings are excellent, particularly in the case of the classic Peasant meatball pie ($24). Forgione laces his pizza with roasted red peppers that balance sweet and vegetal overtones, and uses an atomic-strength oregano that almost reaches a gaminess in its level of aroma. Creamy vodka sauce and provolone also make appearances. Just one almost inconsequential gripe: The meatballs, while porky and delicious, exhibit a heft that can require a knife and fork. Prior to New York’s move to allow 50 percent indoor dining, the pies — there are usually four on tap — were only available for takeout and delivery, but the Peasant team has since extended them to the dine-in menu, in line with the pizza policies of ex-chef Frank DeCarlo. 194 Elizabeth Street, near Spring Street, Nolita
Smillie Pizza by Il Buco Alimentari
When I reviewed Justin Smillie’s Upland back in 2015, which I thought was a wonderful restaurant, I wrote that his pizzas added “nothing to the city’s savory pie conversation, with forgettable crusts that sometimes lack salt, or that sometimes pack an unpleasant wood-fired tang.” So here’s some good news/bad news on that front, now that the chef is back at Il Buco Alimentari with a ghost kitchen project called Smillie Pizza. His bland, crackly crusts, forged from a mix of timilia, semolina and bread flours, are still uniquely mediocre. You’ll appreciate his devotion to dough as much as you’ll fall in love with the Stella D’oro breadstick that your Gristedes salami slice is wrapped around.
Here’s the good news: Smillie’s brilliant ingredient combinations manage to overcome the lackluster breadmaking. With cacio e pepe pizza ($19), the chef turns a blend of mozzarella, fontina, and ricotta into a layer of cheese that’s sometimes firm and tensile and sometimes fully crisp like frico. The necessary addition of pecorino, of course, imparts salty funk, while pepper adds a whisper of heat. With green chorizo pizza ($23), the namesake sausage exhibits a masterfully loose texture — imagine a perfect crumb cake — that sings with the grassy flavor of cilantro. The meat sits on a fat slab of ultra-milky mozzarella, while shards of sharp onion break up the dairy and porcine fats; think of it all as the Italian analogue to an American-style hard shell taco. Best of all is the kale pie ($23), a study in anchovy umami, stretchy cheese, pungent Calabrian chiles, and crisp brassica; some of the best bits have the campfire texture of charred marshmallows. The crust might need work, but the toppings are compelling enough to make it hard to stop eating. 53 Great Jones Street, near Bowery, Noho
Black Seed Pizza
Matt Kliegman, co-founder of Black Seed Bagels, figured it was a good idea to put his wood-burning oven to use in the post-bagel evening hours, so he tapped Bobby Hellen, who worked at the old GG’s, to start making crisp individual Sicilian pan pies with a 100-year-old sourdough starter. Note that these are exceedingly puffy pies, with the outer rim nearly reaching two inches in height. Those who order the Bob’s Pie ($15 small, $28 large) might encounter a salty blend of almost too many ingredients to list: sopressata, mozzarella, grana padano, pecorino, tomatoes, red onions, olives, banana peppers, and homemade chimichurri, a verdant condiment that I didn’t detect any of on my slightly mushy pie. Better was the green pizza ($14-$26), where a pouffy, bubbly, focaccia-like crust supports a thin layer of creamy mozzarella, feathery kale, and tart marinated artichokes. Available from 4 p.m. until close. 176 First Avenue, near East 11th Street, East Village
Disclosure: David Chang is producing shows for Hulu in partnership with Vox Media Studios, part of Eater’s parent company, Vox Media. No Eater staff member is involved in the production of those shows, and this does not impact coverage on Eater.