December 22, 2008
If I could only eat one more food, everyday, for the rest of my life, it would be pizza. And I feel blessed to live in a city where there are so many pizza possibilities, the downside of which is an over-saturation of mediocre pizza within Manhattan. As a result, I focused my attention on Brooklyn and what better way to do it than by trying as many as pizzas as I can. I’m already on a mission for NYC’s best wings, so how about Brooklyn’s best pizza? And what better way to start than a mini pizza tour: three places, three people, three delicious pies. Which one is modeled after the famous DiFara’s? And on a day of pizza, did a 5-cheese, secret recipe calzone steal the show?
The Tourist Trap
To answer the question everyone is asking, no, Grimaldi’s is not worth waiting an hour for. Its coal oven pies are very tasty and topped with homemade fresh mozzarella and San Marzano tomatoes. But for all the old school Italian feel of the red and white checkered table clothes, the green, red and white uniforms, the maps of Italy, and the manager you wouldn’t want to owe money to, this is more a pizza factory than a pizza restaurant; the experience is less about customer service and ambiance as it is about churning out pies and turning over tables for tourists and non-city dwellers. Service is inattentive and once the check has arrived, $16 for one unevenly cooked pie, you better be ready to evacuate your table so the next party can be seated.
Disappointment focused on the haphazard construction of the pie. Poor sauce and pepperoni dispersal ($2 per topping, half or whole pie) made for awkward slices. Your best bet for decreased waiting time and attentiveness is to go after 7PM, that way you also miss the re-building of the fire, an event which takes place between 4PM and 6PM daily and could extend your wait time an extra 30 minutes if you happen to be on line while it takes place. Another unfortunate side effect of the fire re-building is that pies which emerge from the 850 to 1,000 degree coal oven may arrive slightly undercooked, as I encountered, resulting in a dough that’s denser that one would expect from a coal oven. Grimaldi’s, which surprisingly has only been open since 1990, is good but not great. If you want coal oven pizza without the wait and the trip to Brooklyn, check out one of the two Angelo’s locations in Manhattan, just don’t order delivery.
The Hip Pick295 Flatbush Avenue Brooklyn, New York 11217 718-230-0221 Hours: Mon. – Thurs. 5:30PM – 11PM, Fri. 5:30PM – 11:30PM, Sat. 12PM – 11:30PM, Sun. 12PM – 10PM
Let’s be honest, Brooklyn is hip. It’s hip to live there and hip to eat there. It’s what the Lower East Side used to be. And franny’s is the hip place to eat Italian food, from the lower case “f” in the name to the environmentally conscious mantra. Despite the pizza being the most famous menu item at franny’s, it’s telling that its not even mentioned on the introspective “Who We Are” page of franny’s website. Maybe it’s because franny’s is an Italian restaurant that serves pizza, not a pizza restaurant that serves Italian food. Pizza may be the dish that brings in curious outsiders, but I didn’t get the sense that it is where the restaurant’s pride lies.
The surprisingly small pie ($15-$17 average) arrived on the table uncut and doused heavily in olive oil. As if it’s not troubling enough trying to cut pizza fresh out of a wood-fired brick oven, with molten cheese and brightly flavored tomato sauce daring my fingers to dive in, I was stuck contending with a thin and flimsy crust that did not aid in the slicing process. The smell of burnt wood emanating from the brick oven dominated the restaurant and our pie. If I wanted to combat the flimsy crust by ordering my pie well done, I’d be wary of an over-smoked pie. The one bright spot was the touted house-made sausage, which lived up to its billing, it was garlicky and delicious. I’m not going out of my way to return to franny’s, but if I do, it would be for the waitress-recommended clam pie and for a chance to dine in their spacious backyard garden, open from spring to the end of September.
Lucali’s575 Henry St. nr. First Pl. Brooklyn, New York 11231 718-858-4086 Cash Only Open Daily from 6PM to 10PM, Closed Tuesdays except for takeout
The hype for this BYOB Carroll Gardens newcomer has been varied and plentiful, it’s been called mysterious, soulful and wonderful. I just call it damn good. Although the wait for a seat in the dimly-lit single-room may be inordinately long (45 minutes to an hour and a half), it’s worth it for a pie ($18) which resembles one you can only find at another Brooklyn landmark: the legendary DiFara’s.
Brooklyn-native Mark Iacono, the owner and main pizzaiola, models his pie after the legendary Dom DeMarco’s. Working mainly by candlelight, surrounded by ingredients and a cavernous brick, wood-burning oven he built himself, Iacono rolls his dough with wine bottles before spreading a layer of secret recipe sauce over the thin crust. Buffalo mozzarella, low moisture fresh mozzarella and parmigiana-reggiano follow before the pie is baked by the mesmerizing fire dancing off the burning logs of wood.
Upon emerging from the oven, the pie is sprinkled with grated Grana Padano, freshly shaved Parmesan cheese and a few sprigs of basil. The marriage of texture and flavor is complete, resulting in a pie whose sharpness and creaminess balance each other. The crust, unlike franny’s, is light but exceedingly crisp and floury. The cheese is the star, especially the slices of fresh Parmesan melting into the hot mozzarella and sauce. Pepperoni (toppings are $2 – $3.50), brought in from local landmark Esposito and Sons Pork Store, is spicy and burnt around the edges but the plain slice is so good, I would suggest trying the pizza topping free to start.
Just as taking a risk in purchasing this former candy shop with no intended purpose and no pizza-making skills has paid off for Mr. Iacono, trying his calzone is a risk that’s all reward for you. While the crust on the pizza is underwhelming, the same crust is fantastic as a home for the 5-cheese calzone ($10 small, $20 large).
Thin, light, crispy, slightly smokey dough encases creamy buffalo mozzarella, ricotta and low moisture fresh mozzarella plus parmigiana-reggiano and a secret 5th cheese. The obligatory side-serving of tomato sauce is unnecessary because the flavor of the calzone is awe-inspiring enough on its own. Its greatness lies in its contradictory nature; creamy and stringy, salty and slightly sweet, all the differences melt in the heat of the oven to create a pocket of deliciousness.
Lucali is better than franny’s and Grimaldi’s not just for its food but for its atmosphere and the warmth of the experience. Once you survive the wait, you enter what feels like the cozy home of a friend who would let you stay as long as you’d like, especially if you keep letting them cook for you. So be friendly, ask for Mr. Iacono, and tell him you heard the pizza’s good but the calzone is great.