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: telepan

As a long-term resident of Manhattan’s Upper East Side I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time turning up my nose at the dining options available on the other side of the park. For many years the Upper West Side was primarily the redoubt of cheap Chinese restaurants and hand-scrawled signs offering free box-wine with dinner. At a push there was Zabar’s. If you wanted a proper sit-down meal that didn’t involve a Kosher pickle you went downtown – or headed east. Reluctantly I’ll admit to having held on to this East-West bias for far too long. Times have indeed changed. The area surrounding Lincoln Center has blossomed and – dare I say? – makes my old ‘hood seem downright stodgy when it comes to fine dining. Case in point: Telepan. Earnest, honest, market-based cooking tucked into an unassuming side street brownstone – this is the type of restaurant you’d love to make your local if only the price points were as demure as the setting. There’s nothing outlandish or extravagant about the kitchen save Chef Bill Telepan’s devotion to seasonality. The homemade mozzarella is unlike any you’ve ever tasted: a shiny boletus cap that’s part cheese, part saltwater taffy. No workaday caprese, it is served atop peppery spring arugula and toasted green garlic with (appropriately enough) crispy hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. A country pate “sandwich” arrives with house-made pickles, citrus chile vinaigrette and toasted triangles of brioche. Jumbo Maine sea scallops are seared to perfection. Cleverly presented on discs of fingerling potato, the toothsome mollusks are accompanied by the last of winter’s reliable veg, cauliflower and kohlrabi. A meaty filet of halibut replaced the advertised wild striped bass the other night because that’s what was fresh in the market. With wild mushrooms, spinach and sunchokes it made for a substantial entree. It’s at this point I was glad to have ordered a la carte and not done the recommended four-course tasting. While the cuisine might be nouvelle-inspired, the kitchen is clearly at the mercy of a Jewish mother who thinks you’ve gotten too skinny. Perhaps the coming spring menu will lighten things up a bit with a lithesome selection of shoots and leaves – I was hoping for the first ramps of the season myself –  but until then my best advice would be to pace yourself.  Because  the food is that good. And dessert is mostly worth saving room for. I would have loved a more significant (and less decorous) contribution of meringue in the Meyer lemon meringue pie, but the gooey puddle of sweet and tart – heightened by supremes of blood orange and grapefruit – made for a fragrantly pleasant palate cleanser. Wait, let me contradict myself: the pie crust and merengue were unnecessary. A big bowl of that custard topped with a sprig of mint would have enabled the less-than-sober scene of my licking a bowl in public. I have no such suggestions when it comes to the cheese board, however. Okay, maybe just one: there’s four pieces of cheese, Chef; please train your waitstaff to be able to identify which is which. That said, I can’t think of a finer quartet of artisanal cheeses outside of a Terence Brennan cave. The Smokey Blue out of Oregon’s Rogue River Creamery is alone worth the price of admission. Lightly smoked over hazelnut shells, it completely altered what I’d come to expect out of a traditional blue, like Roquefort or Fourme d’Ambert. At once pungently fecund and heady with smoke it tasted of the end of winter – and the burgeoning spring.

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