There’s a concept in retailing called the hero SKU. It’s basically the one item in the store that carries the entire business. At Tory Burch this would be her famous ballet flat, or at Ralph Lauren it would be the men’s polo shirt. And for food, it would be the pancakes at Clinton Street Bakery and the cupcakes at Magnolia (even though the banana pudding is wayyy better).
And at Pasquale Jones, the new Italian restaurant in Nolita run by the Charlie Bird team, the little neck clam pizza is the hero. Clam chowder is one of my favorite foods in the world. It was the soup of the day on Friday at Denny’s, and you can only guess what I had for dinner every Friday night in the suburbs. This pie basically tastes like Friday night at Denny’s, and I mean that in the most flattering way. If you can imagine creamy clam chowder soup on top of a doughy, chewy crust, that is what this clam pizza tastes like. Since the Charlie Bird team is behind this, you know that they can recommend some excellent wines to pair with that pizza. I am blanking on the bottle we ordered, but it was somewhat dry, a little funky, and brought out the brine in the clams.
Sometimes a restaurant might rest on the laurels of the hero SKU and neglect the other parts of the menu. Pasquale Jones is not like that. I didn’t think I would love eating leeks as an appetizer, as the faint resemblance to onions is not really my thing, but here they braise away any of that raw flavor so that you almost feel like you’re eating creamy meaty asparagus with scallions. I love how the menu is small so that you don’t get too overwhelmed by choices. You can order a few appetizers, a pizza and an entree and feel like you’ve grasped the main intent of the menu.
There’s only one dessert option, a mascarpone gelato with rhubarb and olive oil. You might think it’s a lazy way to check the box at the end of a meal, but it’s one of the best parts. They rotate the fruit topping based on the season, but whatever it is, the tastiness is perennial. And the icing on the cake? Gratuity is included but the prices aren’t outrageous. One of the few times where saying “check please” is a pleasant one.
187 Mulberry St (between Broome & Kenmare St)
New York, NY 10012
If someone from out of town ever wanted me to show them around Brooklyn, I would prepare an itinerary that would involve a stop at Roberta’s. This place personifies the Brooklyn spirit that people from other countries can’t get enough of. It has a free-spirited, youthful energy and a quirky DIY, local/artisanal/Etsy-sourced aesthetic that lives up to expectations. And more importantly, the food is worth the extra stops on the L train, especially the amazing pizzas. A soft, bubbly crust with a sturdy core topped with the creamiest of cheese and other fresh toppings, there’s nothing quite like it.
There will be a long wait for a table, even when you go during off hours. Brooklyn is like a theme park at times, especially at a place like this, so you’ll have to line up with locals and tourists alike. Roberta’s has done a great job in making the wait bearable, as you can order pizza from the take out counter and bring it with you to the makeshift drinking tent outside, or you can try your luck at the bar in the back and hope one of the stools open up. Eventually you’ll get the text saying your table is ready, and 1 or 2 beers in, that bee sting pizza will be the bee’s knees.
Roberta’s 261 Moore St (Between Bogart and White St)
Brooklyn, NY 11206 (718) 417-1118
Bruno Pizza is a restaurant with higher ambitions than its name suggests. It doesn’t operate like a traditional pizza restaurant, where the pies are the most interesting parts of the menu, and the ancillary items are more like afterthoughts. Here, the appetizers and pastas, and even the desserts, are just as intriguing, and in some cases, superior to, what comes out of the oven. As a result, it feels more like a well-rounded bistro, and you would be missing out if you limited yourself to the obvious.
The space is big, airy and extremely well-lit, which is pretty unique in a world of dim dinner mood-lighting. With the white counter seating and neighboring tables, it looks very similar to the look and feel of a Momofuku restaurant, except it’s more congenial and inviting. You have the same hipster waitstaff, except they are actually smiling and excited to tell you about what’s in a dish and which wines you should pair it with. Even before tasting any of the food, I could tell that this was a place I would want to return to–casual date, catching up with friends, an early or late snack, it checks the box on a lot of occasions.
The margherita pizza was pretty solid, the crust was extremely soft and doughy, and the tomato sauce tasted slightly sweeter and almost chutney-like compared to a traditional red sauce. Those who expect a crispy, sturdy crust might be disappointed by this flimsier version, which unfortunately collapses under its own weight. One interesting tidbit is that Bruno Pizza grinds all of its own flour in a basement mill to create a truly artisanal dough for their customers. I thought the crust was pretty good, but I’m not quite sure if the in-house grinding made it that much better than other crusts out there.
I was much more enamored by the fairytale eggplant, initially because of the name, and later because of its unique savory flavor. Cooked eggplant tends to be soggy and lifeless, or fried to a point where the vegetable is beyond recognition, but here the eggplant maintained an impressively crispy skin that preserved a soft body of pulp inside. The black cashew butter was what really drew me in, adding a salty, yeasty flavor that was pure magic, or shall I say black magic.
The cavatappi arrived looking very innocuous, like a bowl of lightweight macaroni, but after a bite it was clear there was much more depth to this pasta.There was the salty charm of the bread crumbs, and the intensity of the bone marrow, followed by the breezy brine of the clams and the pleasing squelch of collard greens. You really could have it all in one bite.
I was almost about to pass on dessert, but we were curious to see if the rose geranium gelato could be as whimsical as the preceding dishes, and of course it was. The first scoop was like biting into a big bouquet, which was quite a shock, to be honest, but somehow the fragrance of the roses and the herbaceous nature of the lovage worked well together. The blueberry compote was rich and jammy, and was a soothing offset to the sharper, more herbal qualities of the gelato. It’s a polarizing dessert, for sure, but it’s not something you forget, and the same can be said of our entire meal–liked a Missed Connection on Craiglist, a reunion is in the works.
204 E. 13th St (between 3rd and 2nd Ave)
New York, NY 10003
After a week in Asia, I was craving some good old American food. Nothing says America like a slice of pizza (technically, it is Italian, but I think we’ve adopted it as one of our own), so on my first day back I headed straight towards Rubirosa, a classic red-sauce Italian restaurant in Nolita.
Rubirosa is super popular–whenever I try to look for spots on Open Table, all the prime time tables are always booked up weeks in advance. There are a reasonable number of seats reserved for walk-ins, however, and the turnover is fast, so I would recommend just stopping by on a low-key night like Sunday or Tuesday.
We ordered the classic pie, a house special which fittingly features the classic pairing of tomato and mozzarella. Rubirosa absolutely nailed it with this one. I loved the slightly sweet flavor of the fresh tomato sauce, a refreshing change from most red sauces that serve more as a blank slate for the toppings. The mozzarella cheese was perfectly melted, and the brown bubbled surface provided a nice, chewy texture. The crust is very thin and crisp, which I preferred since filling up on crust is one of my pet peeves, but those who like the doughy, air bubble version might disagree. I would absolutely order pizza here again in a heartbeat.
We also ordered the spaghetti and meatballs, but honestly, it wasn’t that memorable. Here’s what to expect–humongous meatballs without much flavor, and same goes for the pasta, You’re much better off ordering another pie.
235 Mulberry St (between Prince and Spring St)
New York, NY 10012
Eating at Marta, the new pizza restaurant from red-hot restaurateur Danny Meyer, is quite a different experience from dining at Rubirosa. Whereas Rubirosa is casual and homey, Marta is much more slick and corporate. You can just tell that they threw a lot of money at this place. A greeter at the front desk checks you in with an ipad, while another hostess leads you through tables overlooking an open kitchen with two big fancy wood-fire ovens cranking out those pie tickets one after another. As expected, the crowd tends to skew older, and they are a bit more gussied up than the Nolita crowd.
This being a Danny Meyer restaurant and all, I decided to try a more interesting pizza rather than a classic red pie. I figured the man who started Gramercy Tavern would excel in reinventions of the traditional. We ordered the fiori di zucca, a white pie topped with zucchini flowers and anchovies, along with the rabbit meatballs (polpettine di coniglio) and the octopus (polpo) salad.
The fiori di zucca arrived, and while it looked beautiful, it unfortunately did not live up to expectations. It was perfectly constructed–on its own merits, the mozzarella was absolutely stunning, exhibiting a fresh, creamy quality that few other pizza toppings can attain, but it really didn’t have much chemistry with the zucchini flowers and the anchovy. The anchovies were few but extremely intense, certainly not for those who get squeamish about fishiness, although the cheese did balance out these strong flavors. The zucchini flowers didn’t taste like much, which was disappointing. Something else was needed to bridge the cheese and the anchovies together, because in its current state, that extremely raw contrast between the muted cheese and the sharp anchovies was a bit too much.
Unlike at Rubirosa, I absolutely fell in love with the non pizza supporting dishes, specifically the rabbit meatballs. They had a clean, healthy and peppery quality about them, and there was nothing gamey and offputting about them at all. The texture was also impressive–they didn’t crumble about like those large, clumsy meatballs with too much breadcrumbs and not enough meat. Firm but appropriately tensile. The red sauce that they arrived in was warm and savory, and the ricotta provided just the right note of richness.
The octopus salad, on the other hand, was perfectly fine, but nothing more. I suppose if you want a starter on the lighter side that’s a little more interesting than eggplant parm, then it’s not a bad choice, but it’s not something you’re dying to order again on your next visit.
I had stronger feelings about the dessert, the ice cream panino, which is essentially an ice cream sandwich. You really can’t go wrong with an ice cream sandwich, if the ingredients are up to par than you’re already 99% there to a good dessert. Again, the individual components were great–the smoked marscarpone gelato was dreamy, and the chocolate cookies were the right blend of chewy and crispy. But you really couldn’t eat the whole thing together as a true sandwich, the cookies were a little too hard for that to happen. Which is disappointing, since isn’t that the whole point of a sandwich? Ultimately you had to eat it deconstructed, which was fine, and we certainly finished it all, but a few tweaks could have made it perfect.
Marta is a Danny Meyer restaurant, so you’re not going to have a bad meal. Service will be pleasant (although the food took awhile to come out at times), and the food quality is undoubtedly of the highest. But the pizza was trying too hard to be perfect and interesting, and it lacked that essential homey soul that the most delicious pies possess. I guess Marta is sort of like the Anne Hathaway of pizzas, and we all know how that turns out…she’s clearly successful and gets a lot of good roles, but at the end of the day, everyone just wants a piece of Jennifer Lawrence.
Marta 29 E. 29th St (between Madison and Park Ave) New York, NY 10016 212-651-3800
I have fond memories of my old studio apartment on 89th and 3rd. I liked how it was on a block that felt like a real neighborhood. You could sense that generations of families grew up here, whereas downtown neighborhoods lack that sort of heritage. People aren’t trying to be part of the scene, they’re just shopping for groceries, coming back from the gym and just living life. True, downtown has all the flash and excitement, but when you want to get away from it all, the UES is a true escape.
The restaurants in the surrounding area have a similar vibe–reliable neighborhood spots that you can count on to serve you a homey, comforting meal. Fratelli Brick Oven Pizza is that type of a place, and I actually used to frequent this restaurant back in the day. When an opportunity to revisit Fratelli came up, nostalgia and curiosity prompted me to take advantage of it.
Like the name suggests, the pizza is the real draw here. I was a big fan of the crust–it was thin and had that perfect, golden brown char around it, and when you bit down it revealed a soft, chewy interior. We ordered the Mama Fratelli’s Classic, which is a white pizza, meaning that there is no tomato sauce. Instead, you’ll find layers of melted fresh mozzarella revealing a bed of creamy ricotta underneath. There was a generous helping of garlic in the pizza, which provided the pie with some nice, sharp flavors.
We also tried the brick oven baked eggplant lasagna. This had all the trademark trappings of a red sauce dish. Generous amounts of tomato sauce and cheese surrounded the grilled eggplant. I was initially concerned by the excess, but the flavors were surprisingly muted, although the eggplant did get overshadowed by the other components. I also think the lasagna would have benefited from having some sort of carb to provide more structure and neutrality to the dish. But despite these criticisms, I was extremely drawn to the comforting, familiar flavors of the lasagna. With each spoonful I felt like there was less weight on my shoulders and that Friday was closer in the horizon.
A real treat was the white chocolate polenta cake that concluded the meal. I liked how there was a lot of grainy cornmeal texture from the polenta–it was a unique touch that differentiated it from other cakes. I felt like I was biting into a large blondie pancake with bits of sugar crystal granules throughout. Sweet and satisfying, it competently served its purpose as a dessert.
Nostalgia was definitely the overriding theme of this meal. The obvious one was that I had been here before during my early years in New York. The other one was the red sauce style of cooking that Fratelli specializes in. This type of Italian cooking is the one that I grew up, and it’s great that it still finds a place in a dining landscape that demands exotic hybrids and reinventions. Sometimes you just want pizza and pasta the old school way, and that is what Fratelli Brick Oven Pizza delivers.
Fratelli Brick Oven Pizza
1317 First Ave (between 70th and 71st St)
New York, NY 10021