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Jun092014

« Motorino & Co. - NYC's Best Fancy Pizza »

Jim Lahey (right), at Co.

Naples-style pizza is an extremely popular style in the US these days. Yet, but for one story I posted about a single experience I had a couple summers ago in Naples itself, I’ve remained mum on the topic. That’s because I don’t always love it. Too many times I’ve left disappointed (pizza is often soggy) and feeling a little ripped off.

Since there’s not much difference between Naples-style pizza and many other similar ones that don't count as Naples-style because they don't conform to the rules of Naples-style – rules that state which precise types of flour, tomatoes, cheese, yeast, etc. can be used, how dough can be mixed, that only wood can be burned to fuel the oven, and more (you can read them here) – I’ve created a new broader, more inclusive category: Fancy Pizza. 

Co.

Pizzacentric hereby defines Fancy Pizza as follows

1. Shape and Size: A round plate-sized single serving pizza ample enough in mass to comprise a lunchtime or dinnertime meal where not more than one-third is leftover upon completion of said meal by an adult person with a “decent or better” appetite. Diameter should not exceed 14 inches. Outer crust perimeter (aka in Italian, cornicione) is raised “at least a little” and can lack puff but should exhibit “discernible" softness at least in spots.

2. Method and Ingredients: Pizza is cooked in an oven whose heat source is at least in part (but preferably 100%) derived from anthracite coal or wood of any type.  Pizza is made exclusively with “high end” ingredients. All types of natural flours are permissible but preservatives and dough conditioners are not. Cooked crust should exhibit “exceptional” flavor and complexity. Tomatoes other than San Marzano are permissible and, in fact, encouraged (see 2a. below). However, tomatoes should not be sweetened with refined sugar. Neither artificial coloring nor preservatives or other chemicals can be used. Only minimally-processed cheese is permitted (fior di latte/fresh mozzarella, for example). Processed cheese, including “low-moisture” mozzarella, is not permitted.

2a. Tomatoes: Tomatoes from Campania (Italy), including those approved by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, are discouraged (but not disallowed), pending scientific investigation into possible links between their consumption and the unusually high incidence of cancer in the area where they are grown (which may be due to contamination of the soil by toxic substances introduced from longterm dumping of garbage in the region; this is true, see this story).

3. Price: Fancy Pizza should cost more than pizza from a corner joint, an old school tavern, or a “regular” pizza restaurant. Specifically, a single serving margherita (sauce and cheese on dough) should cost at least $12, preferably $14 or more. In practice, fancy pizza is for a nice meal out, though to be worthwhile its price should be “justified” by good quality. Those who prefer to “slum it” may wish to seek less expensive styles; however, it is possible to simultaneously “slum it” and have Fancy Pizza: simply locate a Fancy Pizza Food Truck. (Click here for margherita prices at several NYC restaurants.)

Am I negative on the Fancy Pizza?

Well, on the one hand, pizza should not be expensive. In Italy it originated as a cheap food for poor people and when it came to the United States it was consumed primarily by poor immigrants. Even today, in New York and throughout the US, it remains one of our most affordable eating options. But on the flip side, extraordinary foods often cost more.

Another issue is that oftentimes these little pizzas are (as mentioned above) soggy in the center. It’s a shame, in the opinion of Pizzacentric, that pizza so beautiful to behold – with its silky and soft crust etched with dots of char and a pillowy raised perimeter, made from good ingredients – that it cannot hold itself together. It’s like a precocious child who, in spite of grownups' expectations, has lost his/her composure.

Don’t get me wrong. With even the soupiest and least supportive of these pizzas, I’ll eat mine and gobble up your scraps, too.

Byt it is possible to avoid Fancy Pizza that's soggy. And not only that, you can find plenty of Fancy pies well worth the price. I love when places use non-Italian ingredients or put together interesting combinations of toppings. General advice: avoid margheritas (why spend $15 per person for cheese and tomato?!).

Mathieu Palombino behind the scenes at Motorino (East Village).

My favorite two Fancy Pizza places in New York are Co. and Motorino. Each uses creative combinations of good toppings and good ingredients overall. Each produces sturdy pies of excellent character. And each does great things with cheese.

I asked each place how they achieve such great crust-sturdiness when the pizza at so many other Fancy Pizza restaurants can be soggy. 

According to Matthieu Palombino, owner of Motorino, “soggy in the center is what happens when there is too much sauce or [if] you are using a topping with a lot of moisture [such as] mushrooms.”

He further explains that, “You cut the pizza in 4 or 6 [slices] and sauce slips under the pie, soaks the center, and gets it soggy. The center of the pie, if covered by a blanket of ingredients, will only cook from the bottom, [thereby] preventing the dough from cooking on the upper side.”

Makes sense!

“The key to a crisp pizza,” wrote Mark Barbire, chef at Co., “is a hot surface and the right balance of ingredients so that they do not perspire moisture. Case in point: if we overload a Bosciola pie with crimini mushrooms or too much buffalo mozz it will turn out soggy. It is the hardest pie to execute because of this. Balance of ingredients is key to a perfect pie!!”

So... a soggy bottom is avoidable!!! 

It is thus the opinion of Pizzacentric that places that produce soggy Fancy Pizza either don’t know how to make the bottom sturdier or are not committed to doing so. Some owners have said that this is how pizzas are in Naples and that they make them this way on purpose. And it's true: even the pizza I had in Naples (tomato and mozzarella di bufala) had a soggy bottom. But I don’t believe this is how Naples pizza has always been — nor do I consider center-sogginess a desirable trait. Early 20th century writings describe Naples pizza as a food that people ate while standing up, employing a fold-and-eat tack. So something's wrong. You can’t do a fold-and-eat with soggy pizza!

Perhaps bottoms lost sturdiness over time. Could it be that as daily demand for pizza increased the pizzaioli raised the heat, lowered the cook time, and/or became less careful with the distribution and weight of topside ingredients? I don't know. 

In Italy, at least there’s this saving grace: pizza is not expensive!

But enough on soggy centers. Because actually, some New York pies of this style – pricy as they are – are well worth the money. 

Motorino

Motorino's Pugliese on my car in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

I am usually frugal at lunchtime, but I decided one recent day to splurge for a Pugliese, a sausage and broccoli pizza that is as good as any Fancy Pizza I’ve had anywhere ($17; offered only at Motorino’s Brooklyn location). It works because Motorino’s crust (dots of char, sturdy bottom, thin outer-edge crispness surrounding good puff) is excellent, and because what’s on top presents a sauceless tour de force of awesome flavor. 

First it’s the heat of chili flakes, next the mustardy bitterness of broccolini, then the spice from the bits of sausage. The cheese, a cream-soaked mozzarella called stracciatella, tames the heat enough such that most people, I think, should be able to handle it. The result: each punchy element stands up to the next and, together, they represent the kind of assertion that only a person with innate cheffiness could pull off. That’s who we’re dealing with here at Motorino – Mathieu Palombino is a dude who’s been trained as and has worked as a chef, and who knows how to put things together just right. He also, it turns out, brings to pizza an approach to cheese sourcing that’s rather rare in the pizza world, at least in the US: he limits his mozzarellas to those that are made fresh – really fresh. 

Some of New York's best mozzarella made from curd was at Joe's Dairy on Sullivan Street.
It closed last year but they're still making cheese and supplying it to some local businesses.

I must digress for a moment. There is a common misconception with regards to the meaning of fresh mozzarella. All around town you see Italian shops and gourmet supermarkets and pizzerias carrying something called “Fresh Mozzarella,” many of which are good, others that are just so-so, and then some that have the wrong texture or are too tart. Luckily, pizza is forgiving. Even cheese with the wrong texture works on pizza. Most people wouldn't know the difference unless the good mozz and so-so mozz were facing off in a taste test. 

But, what is truly fresh mozzarella? It’s when a producer takes milk and turns it into curd and then into cheese without delay. Most of the places making fresh mozzarella are starting with curd, not milk. (Curd looks a bit like a mozzarella sponge or a coarse tofu.)

And who can say the provenance of the curd?
How long has it been since a its source-milk came from a cow?
Was the milk turned into curd right away or did even that get delayed?
Once the curd was made, how long was it before the distributor picked it up?
How long did the distributor have it before delivering it to the mozzarella maker?

And what about the mozzarella makers? How much curd do they buy at a time and how many days pass between its receipt and when they sell it as cheese? 

Don’t get me wrong: many places make excellent mozzarella this way. And I know that we can’t have cows in New York City, so the only way to make mozzarella here is to use curd.

But here: check out the above absolutely mesmerizing video to see mozzarella being made straight from milk. If watching it does not cause you to book tickets right away to Italy because the urge to taste it is so darn strong… well… you need to rethink your priorities. 

Back to Motorino. There was a reason I diverted the discussion to freshness of mozzarella. A few years ago, I asked Palombino about the different mozzarellas he uses. He wouldn’t disclose the source (though I now know) (but it doesn’t matter). At the time, he had said:

“It is not a mozzarella made from curd. It is a mozzarella made from milk."

And then he went on to explain why he decided against making mozzarella himself. "Yes, some guys are able to make an okay mozzarella. But I believe cheese should be made by a cheesemaker. I buy the charcuterie from the charcuterie guy and I buy the cheese from the cheese guy. You cannot [make] the same mozzarella as the guy that [has made it] for the past 20 years. It just won’t happen.”  

When Motorino first came onto the scene I learned of it the same way many did: reviews in the paper. Sam Sifton, in the New York Times in 2010, wrote: “[Motorino] serves the city’s best pizza.” 'Nuff said to get me there.

At Motorino: Straciatella

But Motorino, it was clear, wasn’t just about pizza. From the get-go Motorino has been using very cool subspecies of mozzarella on its pizzas. Cheeses, that over time became de rigueur amongst pizza shops and gourmet stores and especially with the foodies, but were popularized in NY first by Palombino. Specifically, burrata and straciatella.

(Burrata is a mozzarella ball with cream in the center. Straciatella is a cream-soaked mozzarella.)

(Yes, fancy places in NYC were already plating these cheeses pre-2009 – and true, they’re all cheeses with roots in Italy.)

 

At Motorino: Brussels Sprouts (left) and Margherita (right).

Oh, one other thing: Motorino has a quite un-pricy lunch special: for $12, you get pizza and a salad. Pugliese is not a choice – nor is the clam pie (another favorite of mine) – but there are four to pick from, including an excellent pizza featuring brussels sprouts.

Co. 

At Co.: Popeye (left), Flambé (right).

I have a harder time deciding what to get at Co. than at any other pizza place. It’s difficult because I adore pizza that goes beyond Italian, and Co. goes beyond tomato and cheese in the exact direction I love: French.

Ahh, Gruyère. French grocery stores have it in all sorts of forms: shredded, cubed, and hunks, and incorporated into many processed products — it’s as popular there as is cheddar in America. But here in the US gruyère comes up mainly in the context of French-type foods and not usually with pizza.

Enter, Co. Famous bread maker Jim Lahey offers French flavors on at least three of his pizzas and I love them all. Every one of them – and plenty of the other pizzas on offer at Co. — are well worth the Fancy Pizza premium you’ll pay (sadly, there's no lunch special at CO.). 

Jim Lahey at Co.

1. Flambé: With this variation of tarte d’Alsace (aka flammenkuchen), a smoky-salty-fatty-chewy assertion of lardons conspires with sweet caramelized onions, the earthy char of a crust cooked well (and slightly risen around the perimeter), and a luscious blend of mozzarella and béchamel. It’s a savory masterpiece. I’ve long wondered why no New York pizzeria has endeavored to offer this combination on one of its sharable pies. That place, if it got it right, would be on my short list for sure! 

2. Popeye: I’m very fond of this pizza, which first appeared years ago as a special at Sullivan Street Bakery’s original Soho location. It’s a tomato-free pie topped with a ton of spinach, garlic, gruyère, mozzarella, and pecorino. The spincach enters the oven as a tall pile on a stretched-out dough and emerges wilted but charred on top in spots. It's then finished with olive oil. Incredible.

3. Ham & Cheese: This pizza certainly presents gruyère in a way that would sate your average French person, but it also dual-functions as that classic lunchtime sandwich ham and cheese, except that it’s a pizza. Besides the ham, it gets gets pecorino, gruyère, mozzarella, prosciutto, and caraway seeds (which contribute a note of rye bread flavor — so smart!).

Normally I’m a stickler for democracy of ingredients when it comes to pizza. I like it when each element occupies the right amount of space and does not impinge upon the rest. 

So here’s the truth about the pizza at Co.: some might find that the crust takes a bit of a front seat to the rest. But seriously, if anyone has earned the right to do something like that, it’s Jim Lahey. He not only produces some of the best bread in New York City (Sullivan Street Bakery has two NYC locations: Hell’s Kitchen and Chelsea (on the same block as Co.)), but has also written cookbooks that turn artisanal bread-making into a set of feasible home recipes. Thus, when Co. allows for relatively heavy charring, I embrace it. It’s not burnt, it’s just another flavor. To play it smart, go with a pie that offers enough of a punch on top to ensure that Pizza Democracy does in fact prevail.

Jim Lahey hooks up his chef with a quick shoulder massage.

I asked Jim why he decided to take his pizza beyond Italian flavors. His answer:

“I love riffing off of other people’s food. So every time I eat something that I like, usually it finds a translation somewhere else. It will find another place to be expressed as another idea. Because nothing is new, at the end of the day. Everyone is reproducing things that already exist.”

How's that for humble?

***

Motorino: 349 East 12th Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenues in Manhattan (212-777-2644); 139 Broadway, between Bedford & Driggs Avenues in Brooklyn (718-599-8899); two locations in Hong Kong. See Motorino website for menu, hours, and other information.

Co.: 230 9th Avenue, at 24th Street in Manhattan (212-243-1105); See Co.'s website for menu, hours, and other information.

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