A partly-consumed caesar salad at Peppino's in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I'm a fan of the pizza at the Pines of Rome in Bethesda, Maryland. I love how the pizzamen there press the tomato sauce into uncooked dough with their fingers so that the two become one, but yet how some tomato fragments manage to surface above the cheese by the time the pizza is finished cooking. I also love the white pizza. It’s made with olive oil, shallots, herbs, and with or without fontina cheese. The crust is crispy and chewy with underside air pocket craters.
I’ve searched long and far in New York for pizza similar to that of the Pines of Rome. I had thought that in a city as vast and vastly Italian-rooted as New York is — where pizza choices vary in both nuanced and obvious ways — that of course I would find worthy proxies for the Pines of Rome.
Good pizza? Yes. Worthy proxies? Fleeting and rare.
In Bethesda, Maryland, the Pines of Rome's white pizza — sans cheese.
For a time, years ago, I regularly inhaled slices at a place called Cristardi’s, where the texture of both red sauce and crust reminded me of the Pines of Rome. It was a tiny square room with no seats located behind a drugstore on a side street in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. There was no sign outside so, not only did I feel in-the-know, but the reward was the best pizza in a neighborhood replete with good pizza.
Cristardi's closed years ago and the drugstore has since expanded into their old space. I asked the pharmacist if he knew how to find the Cristardi's people and whether they had another place. I searched the phone book and the internet. I asked many neighborhood old-timers and pizza people. Ten years later, I still look. But no dice.
There's a lesson here: enjoy your favorite pizza while you can.
Eventually, I took to the practice of transporting both white and red pies, plus orders of the garlicky roasted red and yellow peppers, from the Pines of Rome back to New York whenever possible. I love cold storage.
View on a snowstorm from within Peppino's, in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
And then, discovery. Last week, my wife suggested we venture through a snowstorm to Peppino’s in Park Slope — a newish pizza/pasta restaurant with a wood- and gas-fired oven and a Bay Ridge pedigree. I had wanted to try a different and more-hyped pizza restaurant that night, but boy am I glad we went to Peppino's! Because Peppino's serves something that is as good a proxy for the cheeseless version of the Pines of Rome’s white pizza as I’ve had in New York.
The funny thing is — maybe because in New York, white pizza almost always has ricotta — Peppino’s doesn’t even call it pizza. Instead, it’s "Garlic Crisps.” I discovered these "crisps" only because they are served — in square cuts like those at the Pines of Rome — as croutons atop salad. When was the last time a caesar salad made your day?!!
Linda, the server, agreed with me when I pointed out how good they are. “I’m obsessed with them,” she said.
Crispy along the edges, tender in the center, and seasoned with minced fresh garlic, Italian parsley, and olive oil, they are not exactly the same as the Pines of Rome's white pizza without cheese — but they come close. I asked if they would serve them — instead of in a basket or atop a salad — as a whole pie. They said yes, ask for two orders of garlic crisps kept together as a pizza.
Peppino's large half-pepperoni, half-veggie pie.
One need not go to Peppino’s just to experience the fulfillment of Pizzacentric’s yen for Pines of Rome white pizza. Peppino's regular pies are also good.
Visually, they look a little like Joe & Pat's (and its brethren joints, Ciro and Pier 76 on Staten Island, and Rubirosa in Manhattan) except with thicker crust. And the small-diameter pepperoni you can get on a red pie (they curl up and get crisp around the edges) and the default use of fresh mozzarella each remind me of Lombardi’s.
Visually, the topside of a Peppino's pie resembles that of Joe & Pat's (and pedigree),
but the fresh mozzaarella & small rounds of crisp-edged pepperoni veer into Lombardi's territory.
I returned to Peppino's a few days later equipped with fontina cheese. They didn't mind adding it to my whole pie order of Garlic Crisps. Click the below photo of my custom white pizza with fontina for a short video of Hubert, Peppino's pizzaman, as he prepared it. It turns out, it was more like the white pizza at Geppetto, a DC restaurant owned my uncle than that of Pines of Rome. When I worked at Geppetto we liked to make red pizzas with that garlicky white sauce added on — so good! But all that's another story for another day.
Peppino's Pizza in Brooklyn, NY. (1) 469 Fifth Avenue (between 10th & 11th Streets, in Park Slope). Tel. 718-768-7244. F or G train to Fourth Avenue. Map Peppino's, Park Slope. Hours: Tues - Thurs, 11 am - 11 pm; Fri 11 am - 12 am; Sat, 11 am - 11:30 pm; Sun, 11:30 am - 10:30 pm; closed Mondays. (2) 7708 Third Avenue (between 77th & 78th Streets, in Bay Ridge). Tel. 718-833-3364. R train to 77th Street. Map Peppino's, Bay Ridge. Hours: Tues - Thurs, 11 am - 11 pm; Fri 11 am - 12 am; Sat, 11 am - 11:30 pm; Sun, 11:30 am - 10:30 pm; closed Mondays.