look ma, no gluten

Over the last two years or so, the humble pizza pie has morphed from an object of cult-like devotion inside a small group of New York City obsessives into a sacred cow at the center of a full-fledged crust war among a clique of self-appointed pizza promise-keepers: Totonno’s, Roll-n-Roaster, Keste, Co, Roberta’s, Rizzo’s, Otto, Nick’s, L&B Spumoni, Denino’s, Artichoke Basille’s, Di Fara, Pulino’s and don’t forget 99¢ Fresh Pizza. Each new arrival – and they lately seem to arrive with alarming alacrity – slaps against the old guard claiming esoteric layers of heretofore unheard of authenticity.  It all sounds vaguely Sharks versus Jets until you remember that the man behind Carroll Gardens’ nationally ranked Lucali pie, Mark Iacono, was stabbed in the face during an argument over sauce last year. (Or maybe it was a mob shakedown – the facts remains sketchy) Still, the cupcakeification of what many folks fondly recall as the ultimate in after-hours stoner food is enough to make a reasonable individual shake their head. I have a sneaking suspicion I could get shot for this, but what is the big deal about pizza anyway? I don’t understand the extremism. (And why can’t we all just get along?) Maybe it’s me. Maybe now that I am relatively gluten-free the dough-sauce-cheese combo doesn’t, for all practical purposes, enter my brain as a viable option. When Don Antonio by Starita‘s wood-fired oven opened a block away from my office I couldn’t have cared less, though among the pizzerati it was monumental event: Keste’s Roberto Caporuscio teaming up with his Naples mentor, Antonio Starita. A menu dropped at my desk weeks later boasted of filled pizza, white pizza, stuffed pizza, fried pizza, Pope’s pizza and lo and behold, senza glutine pizza. If third generation pizza royalty could pull off a gluten-free pie, perhaps I was ready to finally give pizza its due. And so one afternoon I hesitantly did, visiting Don Antonio for lunch and settling in with a co-worker over a glass of Montepulciano, shaved fennel salad, and Prosciutto e Arugula, a gluten-free pie topped with homemade mozzarella, prosciutto di parma, arugula and extra virgin olive oil. As expected the pizza arrived perfectly composed, like a Renaissance art work. The crust was heavier than its genetic forebear, the Neapolitan thin crust, and denser, too. It didn’t hold up to the slice test but worked beautifully with a knife and fork. Good sauce, mild cheese, a nice balance of salty pork playing off peppery greens. And mamma mia, was it filling! To my chagrin I could barely finish half. Which made things very convenient for the second part of any proper pizza test: leftovers. Let me state for the record, I do not recommend taking gluten-free pizza home. Something texturally odd happens once the magma cools. It develops the unpleasant rubber-meets-air consistency of a whoopie cushion or a pancake made of polenta, simultaneously pillowy and heavy. It went down like a lead balloon, reminding me how often certain foods are at their best when eaten on a craven whim – a piping hot whim. And that’s my problem:  I’m too much of a conscious eater as of late. Pizza warriors, duke it out amongst yourselves. But count me ready to take up arms once it comes to defending the one true quinoa.

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top 100: sfoglia

The lighting at Sfoglia on the Upper East Side is both a blessing and a curse. In one regard it’s a minor miracle: the votive-filled, semi-subterranean restaurant manages to refine even the homeliest of profiles into a vision as serene as one of Giotto angels. Yet that self-same light is also a curse upon every amateur food photographer or blogger armed with equipment little more sophisticated than last season’s iPhone. As I fall into both of those latter categories, I’m afraid you’ll just have to trust my word about the food and accept the few images I was able to pilfer from the restaurant’s website. Then again the unfussy, casual elegance of this week’s dining experience is a sure sign that I’ll be returning to photograph the warm embrace of Sfoglia’s den of deliciousness again and again – preferably post-workout. Now that you know the happy ending I can share the evening’s irritating beginning, which didn’t begin nearly as felicitously: in the cold, cramped entryway the host was simultaneously handling future reservations, checking coats, and acting as sommelier to a four-top that wanted a bottle of wine while they waited for their table. My initial impression of an improvised hot mess was only reinforced upon sitting when the waiter asked about water before quickly disappearing. What I really wanted was a glass of Dolcetto but I had to wait, patiently nibbling olives in silent frustration. By the time the waiter finally returned to ask if there were any menu questions, I was hungry, and so quickly ordered a glass of wine, antipasti della casa, and the cavatelli, which sounded intriguing as it came with mustard greens pesto and breadcrumbs.  My partner in carbs went for paccheri, a floppy, tubular pasta with pork shoulder and fennel pollen, plus a side of brussel sprouts for good measure. The waiter repeated it all back to us, getting it wrong. Then he repeated it once again, this time getting the wine wrong, before giving an offhand nod and walking away. Before I could give sarcastic voice to the exchange a plate of bread arrived and we tore at it like a pair of hungry cats. The bread at Sfoglia has a cult following. They ship it now, as well as sell it at the restaurant. The crispy thin crust belies a pillowy warm inside which just happens to be an ideal vehicle for sopping up a flavorful plate oil. When the antipasti arrives with my wine I’m glad we decided to share:  two big crostini smeared with whipped ricotta and sea salt share the plate with a mound of peppery arugula and smoked trout and a salad of shredded radicchio and apple that’s unbelievably sweet and creamy and salty all at once. We begin to debate our favorite, coming close to those embarrassing acts of plate scraping and fork-licking. Who cares that our waiter is a dolt, or that we had to wait in the cold for a table? We are here, in this warm haven where simple ingredients being accorded a respectful finesse and we’ve still got two courses left to go. The pastas are, of course, equally memorable: tender pork shoulder, rich in tomato, has the proper ratio of acid to fat, making the perfect foil for wide tubes of the ribbon-like paccheri. Strangely the tiny cavatelli look like grubs – a sensation further enhanced by a topping of crunchy, butter-soaked breadcrumbs. Yet mixed with a pesto of bitter mustard greens it makes for a dish so savory that I’m glad it doesn’t come in a trough or I’d have to make a right spectacle of myself. A happy accident occurs when the waiter absent-mindedly stops by thinking he forgot to tell us about the special deserts that require pre-ordering.  (He did.) Once I hear the words “bread pudding,” I go deaf and don’t need to hear another word. Somehow I manage to continue shoveling cavatelli in my mouth while signaling that yes,the pastry chef should fire up some bread pudding and oh, by the way, more wine, more wine! It’s like being in one of those collegiate stoner dreams: the taste of everything passing my lips is elevated to such a degree that each bite takes on new levels of deliciousness. A heaping bowl of rum-soaked pudding is the night’s crowning glory, managing to at once be both a proper pudding and a wonderfully light finish to the meal. It’s a testament to the kitchen that I’ve managed to have a generous feed and yet I don’t feel stuffed. In the wrong hands an evening at Sfoglia could easily turn into a bacchanal of Falstaffian proportions. Or do I mean the right hands? I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll be back to put that theory to the test.

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