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Roberta’s Shows Hipsters Know Their Pizza

I had read plenty about Roberta’s, the wood-fired pizza palace in Bushwick, Brooklyn that former New York Times critic Sam Sifton boldly (and muni-centrically) called “one of the more extraordinary restaurants in the United States” in his two-star review of the place. I had thought about making the trek out to try the place, but Bushwick seemed a long way to go to wait in line for an hour with a bunch of hipsters to sit at a table and eat pizza that could not possibly be as good as everybody said. It took an invitation from an Israeli visiting New York to finally get me out there. And while Sifton’s comments revealed his limited exposure to the great regional restaurants of the U.S. (Nostrana in Portland, for example, has been making top-notch pizzas alongside a phenomenal menu of locally-sourced fare since well before Roberta’s was a twinkle in its tweed-clad founder’s bespectacled eye), I will admit that these hipsters make a pretty good pizza.

I was introduced to Cauliflower, a fellow journalist visiting from Tel Aviv, by our mutual friend, Dr. Shakshuka. Cauliflower’s army buddy, Olivero, is a musician and graduate student and lives in Bushwick within walking distance of Roberta’s. So it was that Cauliflower proposed we meet there for dinner there. I put our party on the list when I got there at 8:30 and edged my way through a crowd of skinny-jeaned, florescent-thrift-shop bedecked twentysomethings to the bar for a beer. The wait for a table ended up being somewhere around 40 minutes—not a short time, but not as bad as it might have been. We decided to order two pizzas to share, a meat plate and an octopus appetizer.

I rarely meet and meat plate I don’t like, but this one was particularly well-sourced from the artisanal American producers widely considered to be the exemplars of their craft. There was prosciutto from La Quercia in Iowa, finocchiona (fennel sausage) from Salumeria Biellese in Manhattan and sopressatta from Alps Provision Company in Astoria, Queens. Of these, the bold finocchiona won the day, although even it may have been overshadowed by the torn-off chunk of excellent crusty bread that Roberta’s makes in its wood-fired ovens. My Israeli friends hadn’t eaten much octopus, but they gamely sampled the dish after I suggested we order it. Cooked to tender perfection, with a slightly charred exterior, this octopus came with the treviso, a kind of radicchio with long leaves like an endive; a deeply flavorful fermented garlic called black garlic; and sea beans, a sea-salty, bright green stalk whose texture resembles thin, tender asparagus. This was a balanced, yet fairly complex dish that included two ingredients I had never tasted, and readers of this blog know that I have tasted a lot. Two points for Roberta’s.

Finally it was time for the pizzas. We ordered one Tracy Patty, made with mozzarella, ricotta, boquerones, savoy cabbage, roasted garlic and black pepper. Boquerones, cured Spanish anchovies are flat out one of my favorite foods in the world, and the riotous, salty, oily flavor the lent to this pizza did not disappoint. Creamy, mild mozzarella and sweet ricotta offset those flavors nicely, and the cabbage provided wonderful crunch with a less-pungent Brussels sprout-like flavor. The second pie was the Banana Hammock, topped with bechamel, mozzarella, pork sausage, garlic, red onion and banana pepper. Once again, the contrast between the creamy bechamel and the spicy pork sausage, not to mention the kick of pepper and onion, made this pizza a standout. I preferred the boldness of the Tracy Patty, but Olivero came down on the side of the Banana Hammock. The crusts on both were delightfully light and chewy with perfect blackened pockmarks around the edges—absolutely nothing to complain about here.

What did I conclude after finally hauling out to Bushwick to try Roberta’s? It is an excellent and enjoyable restaurant, which might even be worth the wait, providing drinking can be done in the interim. Like a true gentleman, Cauliflower covered my cab ride home to Park Slope, but Roberta’s might even be worth the money it takes to haul oneself home full, slightly drunk and happy at the end of a good night.

261 Moore St.
Brooklyn, NY 11206

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Tabaré Gives Uruguay Its Due

My parents were visiting last weekend, and in true Lassie style, much of that time was spent eating. Our meals included visits to Mile End and Zabb Elee, near-perfect bagels from Park Slope’s Bagel Hole, Blue Smoke fried chicken and ribs at the Jazz Standard, lunch at the Upper East Side’s Paola’s with other Oregon relatives who happened to be visiting and a homemade feast with Daddy Salmon’s relatives out in Long Island. On Sunday, we drove with Second Breakfast, Okonomiyaki and my cousins Rice Ball and Leftover Girl to Doylesville, Pennsylvania where we toured the unbelievably ornate Fonthill Castle and then walked along the path that runs between the Delaware river and a former shipping canal. The drive home took longer than we had hoped, so we all decided to go out for dinner. Rice Ball, who is nine, had school the next day. Luckily, there is a restaurant right next door to his house in Williamsburg: an Uruguayan spot called Tabaré.

The restaurant is a cozy little space, dimly lit, with windows looking out to the street and a small patio out back. A table for eight was easily arranged after 8 pm on a Sunday night, something that might not be possible at some of the happening places on Bedford Street. (Hipsters, science has revealed, don’t need sleep. Or is it just that they don’t have jobs?) I’ve tried Argentinian food, Brazilian food, Peruvian food and Colombian food, but I can’t say I had ever knowingly tasted Uruguayan food before visiting Tabaré. A quick glance at the menu revealed that the country’s cuisine is heavily influenced by those of its European settlers from Italy, Spain, Portugal and France. Empanadas graced the menu, alongside lasagna (spelled “lasaña,” the Spanish way) and fish cooked “en papillote” (or “pescado en papel”). We started by ordering beer and wine, a necessity after enduring the sluggish tunnel traffic back to the city. Trying to be as authentic as possible, Mango Mama ordered the Uruguayan Pilsen, while I went slightly further afield and ordered the Argentinian Quilmes. It seems the Argentinians best their Uruguayan neighbors at beer as well as wine; the Quilmes had more flavor and depth than the Pilsen.

We started with an order of delicious Provençal-style mussels, cooked in a buttery broth of garlic, shallots and white wine. This came with a buttered slice of grilled baguette and could have made a lovely meal by itself. In fact, Okonomiyaki had ordered another bowl of mussels for her main course. Dining with EB himself, we could not, of course, pass up the opportunity to order empanadas. These come in three flavors, and one order includes two. I selected caramelized onions, gruyere and fontina and Spanish tuna and black olives. These were both tasty, although I preferred the tuna. They came with two dipping sauces: one a chili-spiked oil and the other a slightly spicy blend of parsley, cilantro, garlic and oil olive, similar to the Yemeni condiment skhug. Then came the main courses. Okonomiyaki got her mussels, and Leftover Girl got the fish (which that evening was pollock) cooked in parchment paper. The fish was tender and flaky beneath a crisp shell of herbed grated potato. It came with a simple, but exquisite, salad of multi-colored cherry tomatoes.

Almost everyone else got the dish that is clearly the restaurant’s speciality: the chivito completo. This is a traditional Uruguayan sandwich, made with filet mignon, bacon, mozzarella, onions, green olives, lettuce, tomato and a fried egg. (Rice Ball ordered his with nothing but steak.) Served on a burger bun with a side of crispy fries and house-made mayonnaise, this sandwich was a heavenly blend of salt, fat and protein and would no doubt prove deadly if eaten with any kind of regularity. I ate some of other peoples’ sandwiches, but in an effort to try more menu items, I had opted for the potato gnocchi of the day. These were rich with a pleasant chewiness, but they came with a heavy, creamy, tomato-based sauce that was infused with so much sage that the herbal flavor became a little off-putting. The sauce, otherwise well made, was also too weighty for its already opulent base. This is not to say I didn’t finish my meal, but I felt uncomfortably full after doing so and had a soapy sage taste lingering on my palatte.

We were all pretty full, and Rice Ball had to go home for bed, but our server brought over some flan, courtesy of the restaurant. She had seen me taking pictures of my food, and Leftover Girl had accidentally mentioned something about my blog, so I was initially concerned that this gift was a way of guaranteeing a better review. But our server assured us that the gift was planned all along and Okonomiyaki said she had gotten a free dessert almost every time she had eaten there. Besides, the Mango Lassie’s good opinion cannot be bought! I have to admit, though, that flan, creamy and perfectly caramelized, was pretty darn good.

221 S. 1st St.
Brooklyn, NY 11211

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Fornino Puts Pizza on the Grill

Last night, Empanada Boy and I joined our friends Bass Drum Crumb and Curly Fries at the new Park Slope location of Fornino, a restaurant and pizzeria that has already made a name for itself in Williamsburg. I had read about the fantastic Neapolitan-style pies at the first location and saw the mouthwatering pictures of them on the restaurant’s website. A great Williamsburg foodie attraction had made its way to the less hipster ‘hood of Park Slope! This was worth a celebratory cheer and a visit. What I didn’t know was that Chef Michael Ayoub had decided not to build the requisite wood-fired pizza oven at his Park Slope spot. Instead, he opted to grill his pies and serve a bunch of other Italian pastas and more elegant fare. I didn’t realize this shift until our pizza arrived at the table. (The menu for the Park Slope location is not on the website, but I eventually found it here.) I was disappointed not to be eating the chewy bubbly crust of the Neapolitan-style pizza I had been craving, but the company was great and the grilled pizza had its merits, which I will be discussing below.

We started with two tasty antipasti: eggplant caponata and a salad made with radicchio, peaches and goat cheese. The caponata had a nice balance of sweetness from the roasted eggplant and saltiness from black olives that were blended in. It came with a nice herbed focaccia that had just the right chew (a true rarity, in my experience). The salad was vibrant and beautiful in its color contrasts. My only complaint was that the dressing was a little too mild. A bolder, tangier dressing could have set off the sweetness of the peach wedges nicely. Next came our pizzas. We ordered the Funghi Misti with wild mushrooms taleggio and white truffle oil and another one called the Calabrese, made with tomato, fior di latte (cow’s milk mozzarella) and a spicy pepperoni called caciatorini a diavolo. The crust on these was quite thin and almost cracker-like at the edges. It had good flavor with a hint of smokiness, but none of the blackened, bubbly pockets that come from an oven. The mushrooms on the first pizza had strong flavors of their own, but didn’t seem to have been seasoned enough while being cooked. One variety of darker color mushrooms dominated the others. But the flavors that won the fight for dominance in this dish was definitely the white truffle oil. I could have done with less of it.

Instead of the Calabrese, our server ended up bringing us the Pizza Vinny Scotto. This one had all the ingredients of the Calabrese, but added bel paese (a semi-soft Italian cheese), pecorino, ricotta and a bell pepper aioli. Crumb had been hesitant to order this one because he wasn’t into big clumps of ricotta, but the clumps turned out to be fairly small we decided to keep it when it came. Perhaps we made a mistake, though, because there seemed to be too many ingredients on this pizza. The sheer number of cheese alone was enough to create a conflicting flavor profile that didn’t successfully highlight the quality of any single one of them. The best part of this pizza was the caciatorini. It was hot and well-spiced and not as greasy as the generic pepperoni found on so many pies.

Speaking of ricotta, this cheese also featured prominently in the cheesecake topped with strawberries that we ordered as one of our desserts. I am not a fan of American-style dense cheesecakes, but this one had a pleasant lightness to it, and it was not too sweet. The fresh strawberries made for beautiful color contrast and added seasonal freshness.

Our second dessert was a torta di limone, a cake with a thin crust of brown around the exterior and and moist, but light, lemony interior. This was a great dessert and one I would like to try making at home. Curly Fries and I had enough to drink between the two bottles of Italian wine we ordered as a table and the glass of white she ordered for herself, but EB and Crumb wanted to keep the party flowing…I mean going. They each ordered a glass of grappa from the fairly lengthy list. EB’s ended up being smoother than Crumbs, which was more like a whiskey in its smokiness. Both were quite strong, but the Italians believe they aid the digestion, and I’m not inclined to argue with centuries of tradition.

In the end, the pizza was good but not great. The ingredients were nice and the restaurant itself was pleasant, but I had really been looking forward to that Neapolitan crust. Maybe it was just a question of managing expectations.

Fornino Park Slope
256 5th Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11215

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Sandwiches That Are Anything But Bunk

Roast BeefIf Thanksgiving didn’t offer enough opportunity for pigging out, my family decided to preface the big dinner with a lot of great eating. Empanada Boy had already been in Portland for a couple days before my arrival late Tuesday night. Before we all headed out to our beach house in Cannon Beach the next day, we went out to lunch at one of Portland’s many new hipster hangouts: Bunk Sandwiches. Present were Mango Mama, Flava Flav, Daddy Salmon, Empanada Boy, Flav’s friend Sunbutter and me.

Making SandwichesAs any good sandwich shop should, Bunk has made a name for itself because of its top-notch ingredients and winning, innovative, flavor combination. The line of about 20 people that stretched out onto the sidewalk was evidence enough that this place is more than a fad. Luckily for us, Sunbutter was already in the middle of the line. We snagged an outdoor table, warmed by the mild afternoon sunlight. There are only a few tables and a counter with stools inside the small, funky shop. One wall bears a blackboard with the menu. A lady at the counter took our orders while a man who looked like he took his sandwiches seriously assembled ours on the exposed cutting surface.

Pork BellyWhen the sandwiches started coming out to our table, sitting impressively atop plain brown butcher paper, next to a side of sea salt chips, I began to understand what this place was all about. Every sandwich we ordered was a work of art. My roast beef sandwich (top photo) was made with rare and juicy, hand-cut meat, sweet caramelized onions and tangy, tangy horseradish. EB and Sunbutter ordered the pork belly sandwich (pictured here), and it was just as unctuous as it sounds. The buttery meat was made even richer with the Gruyere and Russian dressing, but a bright heap of crunchy pickles kept things lively.

Italian 3Mango Mama’s sandwich looked like a salad on a bun, with vibrant lettuce, hot peppers and tomatoes. But beneath the fresh greenery were layers of salami and another Italian cured meat, along with provolone picante. Daddy Salmon continued in the picante vein with a sandwich made from roasted poblano pepper and delightfully stretchy melted cheese. The crisp bread and the soft smoky pepper made a perfect bite.

Now that I think of it, the creation of the perfect bite could sum up Bunk’s mission. And I’m willing to come right out and say that it’s a mission at which Bunk resoundingly succeeds.

Bunk Sandwiches
621 SE Morrison St.
Portland, OR 97214

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