230 Ninth Avenue & 24th St
Of all the recent NYC pizzerias to have opened, Co. has received the most buzz. Jim Lahey, famous Sullivan Street baker blah blah blah—you either probably know the story already or you don't care. Regardless, these are the things you really need to know: the owner knows his dough and there's a wood-burning oven.
For a place that was hyped (resulting in stupidly long waits) and hammered by the press (one star review by Frank Bruni NYTimes) simultaneously, being both praised and reproached for its 11-inch pies, but pretty much universally beaten to a pulp for its service, the place was remarkably inconspicuous. The dining space was warm with amber-stained wood tables and floors, and with only one other group present when our small, motley crew convened, there was nary a moment of waiting in line (or on line) to be seated.
After a few rounds of negotiation, our foursome settled on splitting a Boscaiola (tomato, mushroom, buffalo mozzarella, pork sausage, onion, chiles) and a Margherita (you know). I don't think it even took five minutes after our order was in for the Margherita to arrive, piping hot, puffed, charred... and small. Really, it seemed pretty tiny, even for a neapolitan-inspired pie.
Rather than a flattened disk with a puffed edge, Co.'s crust has a steady gradient from a relatively thin center that gets increasingly bubbly and airy as it gets to the circumference. Their pizzaiolos don't waste an inch of space and cover the whole pie in toppings, disregarding the idea of a bare edge. This I think is a bit of a shame as it would allow for an opportunity to spotlight the bread. Coming from a renowned baker, it seems odd that the crust isn't given a bit of a glory moment at the end of the slice. That said it is the crust that distinguishes Co.'s pizzas from the rest. It is unique in its soft, yeasty, salty, and airy stylings.
The Margherita, in short, was very tastey, but unremarkable. The sauce was unseasoned as far as I could tell and was light with a mild sweetness. The cheese was a buffalo mozzarella, and typically extra watery with a creamier, less potent flavor than your standard fior di latte. All in all, a well balanced meal.
The Boscaiola, which may have been the wettest slice of pizza I've eat, thanks mostly to the healthy sprinkle of moist and meaty mushrooms, was driven largely by the temper of the chiles and spicy sausage. It was a punchy combination and there were moments of gustatory excitement, but it was occasionally overpowering and there were times when my tongue would have preferred to duck and cover. It's a wild one.
Conclusion: Nice for a change of pace, but not someplace I would end up as a regular.
3-1/2 John Cougar's out of 5.
2. Kesté 271 Bleecker St.
(across from John's)
Sallying forth from the starting line, the four of us meandered over to Bleecker, losing Eugene to the underground on the way. Kesté lay in the bowels of a street fair. Brendan waited for us at the door. The pizza menu at Kesté is extensive and they're all cooked in a beautiful, ceramic-tiled, wood-burning oven in the back of house.
Our rounds of choice were the Margherita (duh) and the controversial Pizza del Papa (butternut squash cream, smoked mozzarella, artichoke, roasted peppers). Our server seemed somewhat non-plussed at our paltry two-pie order, but we were not deterred. We held fast in the knowledge that there was more pizza to come in the very near future. It is in this kind of race more than any other that slow and steady wins.
Kesté's pizze are beautfully blistered. The Margherita looks in many ways like the platonic ideal. Sadly though, it's a bit of a gold-plated trophy. The slice that met my mouth was over-topped, which is no small feat on a slice containing only mozzarella, tomato sauce, and basil. The paper-thin crust could not hold the weight or the wetness of a heavy-handed dose of cheese. The edge crust was a cushiony pad with a smattering of char. It had a nice mix of crunch and chewiness, but was light on flavor. The Pizza del Papa sounds like the crazy uncle of pizzas—fun to hang out with for a weekend, but not for everyday consumption. Maybe it just takes a little getting used to, but I found the combination of the puréed butternut squash and mozzarella to be much too creamy and heavy. Brendan likened it to butternut squash soup on a flatbread. This is not an inaccurate description. I also found the pieces of roasted peppers to be too large, somewhat unwieldy and overpowering. The pie would have been better served without the cheese and a sparse distribution of diced peppers. Despite the drawbacks, Kesté is rounder than your average bear and if there weren't carbon-flecked competition from Pizza Mezzaluna, John's, Joe's, or No. 28 just around the corner, I would keep a pot of honey out for it. 3-1/2 victory gardens in a world short of massive monoculture farms.
3. Pizza Mezzaluna
146 West Houston Street, New York, NY 10012 (b/n MacDougal and Sullivan; map)
I don't know what I was expecting when I dropped by Pizza Mezzaluna (located next to what used to be DeMarco's, the now defunct Di Fara spin off), but it was not the marble-benched, open-awninged environs that I found. It's a small, but open and friendly space.
By the time our band arrived it was around 2pm and the joint was vacant, with a low-key atmosphere. The pizzaiolo was in no rush to get things started, but even then, with their wood-burning oven, it only took a few minutes for our order—a Bufala (a Margherita with buffalo mozz rather than the standard cow variety) and a Piccante (tomato sauce, mozzarella, spicy salami)—to make it in and out of the oven and sit steaming in front of us.
Pizza Mezzaluna produces some fine eats. The buffalo cheese was delicate and velvety and the crust was well blistered (see left). The salami on the piccante was a nice combination of smokey, salty, spicy, and sweet, and though I'm generally partial to my salami slices being smaller in diameter (truly, Di Fara's pepperoni is about as close to perfect as it comes), I would be happy to order it on a regular basis, given the opportunity.
And though these pizzas were very good, they lacked a certain character, a little eccentricity. They were too round, too regular in their distribution of toppings, the edge was too consistant in size and color. Yes, this is a nitpicky thing to complain about, but when you're in a city with as many quality pizza establishments as NYC, then you have the luxury of such opinions.
4 horse-and-buggy rides around central park out of 5 horse-and-buggy rides around central park.
319 Graham ave. Williamsburg
L stop to Graham Ave. Brooklyn
Why did it take so long for me to get to this one? Because writing these things is actually kind of boring. Sure there's somewhat of a personal challenge in figuring out novel ways to describe the same four components, but even that wears thin after a few go-rounds.
Let me say this, after eating our way through three distinguished NYC pizzerias, those of us left standing took a much-needed respite at a nearby record store before heading out to confront hipstervilleberg. With our appetites at risk, we judiciously skipped San Marzano Brick Oven Pizzeria and headed straight to Motorino.
Go here. With an bright and airy atmosphere and friendly waitstaff to match their friendly pizzas, if there's one new place you hit up in the next few months, this should be the one. Motorino's crust is perfectly cooked and they've got a great sauce–cheese balance. The edge is soft and bready on the inside with a crispy exterior. You won't be disappointed. Motorino was the highlight of the tour.
Una Pizza Napoletana. Di Fara. Motorino. It's been said. Can't take it back. This place is a top fiver.
And their desserts ain't half bad either.