New York City is the pizza capital of the world. With our indigenous coal ovens, stacked ovens, and focaccia stylings as bedrock, we absorb pizzas from different parts of the United States, Italy, and the world — including Argentina and France (though Tunisia’s canned-tuna-and-boiled-egg pizza still eludes us).
New York is also a place where new styles of pizza readily take hold, as demonstrated by Oma Grassa, a new Fort Greene pizzeria that opened in July, where pizzaiolo Adam Baumgart is using what’s becoming a coveted appliance for new-wave pizza makers: the electric oven.
Oma Grassa occupies a flatiron-shaped building with plenty of picture windows on the corner of Fulton and South Portland. The room is spare and airy, with black-and-white beehive floor tiles and hanging Tiffany lightshades in the design. A pair of stacked pizza ovens commands attention, located behind a counter in the middle of the flatiron’s rear wall.
In pizza baking Baumgart’s oven is unique in that it’s electric, not gas or wood-fired, and set at 650 °F— over 100°F hotter than conventional gas ovens, bisecting the average temperature of gas and wood. What’s more, the top and bottom of each oven can be set at different temperatures, and the floor is stone, which absorbs and radiates heat. Oma Grassa is one of a handful of restaurants that use an electric oven for pizza, including Brooklyn’s Leo and L’Industrie.
So what difference does this oven make? It crisps the bottom of a pie that might otherwise be — in the style of Naples pizza — soggy, allowing a more-profuse array of toppings on a firm foundation. Basically, this method creates a hybrid style of pizza halfway between Naples and New York. The electric oven also guarantees a higher level of precision and consistency where pizza baking is concerned. This is pizza catapulted into the modern era.
Baumgart, whose resume includes such estimable spots as Prune and Roman’s, presides over the dining room like an actor in a one-person proscenium, twirling the sourdough crusts, strewing ingredients, and — peel in hand — wrangling pies in the oven. Sometimes he even delivers the finished product to the tables with a flourish.
Eight pies are currently available, and I tried five in two visits. The margherita ($20) is something of a default, and always the perfect test of a pizzeria anyway. The cheese is more dense than usual, with pecorino tweaking the mozzarella, and the tomato sauce tasting slightly of oregano. These are generous 14-inch pies, and one would easily feed two.
Even better is the anchovy pie ($19), a cheeseless exercise in powerful flavors, also containing capers and olives, making it like puttanesca. I loved it enough that I was still thinking about it on the subway afterward. Using the ubiquitous cupping ’roni, the pepperoni pie was fine, though a little too charred for my taste on one occasion. A better choice was the pie peppered with cherry tomatoes — adding an element of sweetness, as well as some creamy ricotta for a dairy tour-de-force.
Though Baumgart’s toppings are largely conventional, there’s an unusual pie that comes with three cheeses, roasted garlic, and lemon, smothered at the last moment with greens that’s quite good. Oma Grassa also offers a selection of add-ons, including fennel sausage and pickled chiles, but use these sparingly because the pies are already flavor-balanced and well-conceived.
Only three apps are offered, but these show off Baumgart’s experience as a chef. Most unusual is a plate of pickled vegetables, olives, and a boiled egg — one can hardly imagine a better thing to nibble while waiting for your pizza; its main advantage lies in it being as different from a pizza as possible. At $9, it’s also a steal.
The other two starters are also enticing. The one I tried was a massive salad ($15) that was like a Caesar but without the anchovies. The perfect lettuce leaves arrive uncut, encouraging you to pick them up with your fingers. The vinaigrette is simple and classic, coating each leaf but not weighing it down. All the apps can be shared with a group with a bottle of wine — another notable feature of Oma Grassa.
Yes, there are other pizzerias that function as natural wine bars, but the wines here are particularly well-matched to pizza. In Naples, most people drink a Coke with their pizza, anyway, but those who drink wine often pick a chilled and fizzy red. Thus Oma Grassa offers a skin-contact Lambrusco ($50), which has a cherry-cola nose, but other quirky wines are even better, like Primo Incontro (glass $14, bottle $56), a straw-yellow bubbly white from the grape that makes Soave that’s been been double-fermented and tastes of its volcanic soil. Let the bubbles tickle your nose while you chow down on Baumgart’s magnificent pies.