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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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Motorino Might Be Worth All The Hype

There are some restaurants that are fawned over so much by the food media and my fellow bloggers that they become impenetrable in my mind. I convince myself that I’ll never be able to go to them because I’ll never be able to get a reservation or the line will always be impossibly long. For some reason, Motorino, touted as New York’s best pizza by multiple outlets, was one of those places.

Finally one Saturday about a month ago, Empanada Boy and I decided to go out to dinner after spending most of the day cooped up inside. It was already pretty late, so on the spur of the moment, I thought, why not take a chance with Motorino? The restaurant has two locations, one in the East Village and the other in Williamsburg. We went to Williamsburg, and to my surprise, there was a mere 20-minute wait when we arrived. The restaurant is crowded, but cozy and well-lit, with a bar where you can wait for a table to open up. We ordered some beers, which helped pass the time nicely. We were seated at a somewhat cramped table in the middle of the dining space, but any thoughts of displeasure vanished when we saw the bubbly-crusted Neopolitan-style pizzas wafting out of the kitchen toward neighboring tables.

We started with a punchy, flavor-packed salad of arugula, bacon, figs and gorgonzola. I loved how the peppery zing of the arugula played off the creamy, smoky and sweet toppings. For one of our pizzas, we selected the seasonal Brussels sprout pie, topped with fior di latte mozzarella, garlic, pancetta and pecorino. This had a lovely autumnal depth from the roasted sprouts and garlic. The mozzarella added creamy richness, while the pecorino delivered a hint of funk. And the crust was fantastic: light, with marvelous chew and satisfying blackened pock marks along its bubbly, olive-oiled edge.

Our second pizza was more traditional, but also delicious. Unlike the Brussels sprout pizza, this one had a slightly sweet, slightly tangy tomato. It also had spicy soppressata, creamy fior di latte, chili flakes and garlic. This pizza was delicious and beats out most I’ve had, but I still think I liked the Brussels sprouts better for its unique combination of flavors and ability to capture the essence of the season. Surely I’ll be interested in eating something lighter come spring, but for the encroaching cold of December, that pizza hit the mark.

Most importantly, I now know that an off-the-cuff trip to Motorino is possible any time I feel like a great slice (or three) of pizza. Empanada Boy and I may well find ourselves waiting at the bar there again soon, as the craving moves us. Maybe we’ll even stop in tonight…

319 Graham Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11211

Also at

349 East 12th Street
New York, NY 10003

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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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Good Pizza, Good Conscience at Franny’s

Living in Brooklyn finally gives me a chance to visit all of the borough’s hipster, locavore, gourmet locales that publications like The New York Times have been breathlessly extolling for a few years now. One of these is Franny’s, a pizza place in Prospect Heights that is a mere five-minute bike ride from our apartment. In the spirit of these parts, Franny’s sources all of its produce, eggs and fish from local organic farmers, and its meat is sustainably raised. Needless to say, the coffee is fair-trade, the cooking oil is recycled and the restaurant runs on renewable energy purchased from the power company. But I had to wonder: Was the food as good as it was green? I met my friend Onion there last weekend to find out.

The word on the street is that going to dinner at Franny’s means a guaranteed wait in line for a table. Apparently that is not the case for a weekend lunch. Onion and I were quickly seated in the simple dining room with a view of the bar on one side and a view of the kitchen and pizza oven through an opening on the other. In addition to the seats at the bar, there are also tall chairs at a window counter, which offer a nice view of Flatbush Avenue and undoubtedly good people watching. We could see from looking around that the pizzas weren’t huge, so we started with two appetizers. One was crostini with wood-roasted pancetta, olive oil and beautiful brown Italian beans. The combination— salty, smoky, spicy, nutty and rich— was to die for, and the bread was chewy and light. Everything tasted fresh and vibrant. I was starting to see why the devout foodie pilgrims like this place.

Our second appetizer was roasted fennel with red onion, lemon and chilies, a flavor explosion. The fennel was tender under our knives, and it had depth and sweetness beneath its charred edges. The anise flavor combined with the other sharp acids was refreshing and bright. This dish had everything, and it achieved it all with very simple, fresh ingredients.

We had ordered a white pizza with buffalo mozzarella, ricotta, garlic, oregano and hot peppers, but had to wait another 15 minutes or so before it was finally came. It was beautiful when it did. The crust was puffy and bubbly, and the wedges of roasted garlic were scattered temptingly amidst alternating circles of the two cheeses. Our urge to devour the thing was slowed somewhat by the fact that the pizza didn’t arrive sliced (nor did those we saw being delivered to tables around us). We couldn’t figure out why that was the case, but we dutifully sawed away at it with our serrated knives. The crust was chewy and light, reminiscent of Chicago’s Spacca Napoli, and the toppings melded together like a symphony. I could see myself eating a whole pizza if I came back hungry.

Besides not being sliced our only complaint about the pizzas were the prices. Our pizza was $16, but some were as high as $20— pretty steep for a two-person pie. Still, I’m willing to pay those prices more than once for food as good as what we ate at Franny’s. Excellence and a clear eco-conscience both come at a price.

295 Flatbush Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11217

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Beer Takes Flight at Hopworks

Beer FlightEmpanada Boy and I are up in Northern Wisconsin at his family’s lake house. It’s cold, and the snow has been falling almost nonstop since we arrived here last night. It all makes you feel like drinking warm beverages and curling up in front of the fire, but there’s one cold beverage you always have to make room for when you’re here, and that’s beer. Wisconsinites take their beer seriously. But then, so do Oregonians. The difference is that Oregon beer tends to be more craft-oriented and less mass-market than Midwest brews. This is evidenced by the small temples to the art of beer springing up in my home state everyday.

The last time we were in Portland, EB and I did a beer tasting with Flava Flav and Daddy Salmon at Hopworks Urban Brewery, a quintessentially Portland spot, decorated with bicycle parts hanging from the ceiling and the bar. When we were there, Hopworks was offering a great deal: 10 3-ounce pours of its proprietary brews for a mere $7.50. That’s just under two pints for about what one would cost you in New York. EB drank one whole sampler himself (obviously), but Flav and I shared and Daddy Salmon opted for a pint of IPA. Beers ranged from the Organic Hub Lager (5.1% alcohol by volume) to hoppy seasonal brews with more than 9% ABV and came on a tray lined with tasting notes. All were delicious and distinctive, but these are not weak, watery beers, and even the staunchest beer drinker cannot hope to get through a flight without some food to line the stomach.

PizzaDaddy Salmon, Flav and I shared a large pizza, one of the focal points of the Hopworks menu. We got the Gatherer topped with mushrooms, caramelized red onions, marinated artichoke hearts, roasted garlic, bell peppers and black olives. Unfortunately, the pizza sounded more delicious than it turned out to be. The crust was a little dry and lacked the chew of a wood-fired oven. Some of the toppings—olives, artichoke hearts—came from a can, and the mushrooms were basic buttons, not the more flavorful wild mushrooms that typically grow in Oregon. One noteworthy detail, however is that most of the ingredients are organic.

BurgerAs soon as I saw EB’s burger, I realized I should have ordered that instead. It was huge and cooked to a perfect medium rare. Tillamook cheese melted on top and large French fry wedges came on the side. The standout burger made me wonder about the other sandwiches on the menu like the one made with Pilsner-cured sausage or the laden Hopworks Sub. I’ll probably try one of those the next time I’m feeling like drinking a whole lot of flavorful Oregon brews and need something substantial to line my stomach.

Hopworks Urban Brewery
2944 SE Powell Blvd.
Portland, OR 97202

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