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: esca

I knew it was bound to happen sooner or later: a bust up, a blow out, the discovery of an out and out lemon undeserving of its place in the vaunted Top 100. For some reason, however, I never expected it to happen at Batali and Bastianich’s Esca. Mario and Joe, respectively, are the forces behind an impressive group of critically acclaimed restaurants, including Babbo, Del Posto, Lupa, Otto, and the Eataly megaplex. Together they’ve taken a cuisine which for generations dwelled in a red sauce ghetto and forged an authentic four-star Italian experience. These restauranteurs know what they are doing – which made my recent meal at Esca all the more disappointing. For starters, the rock ‘n’ roll is too loud by half and the lemon yellow walls are in need of a fresh coat of paint. (On the first day of spring – with the weather happily cooperating – could there be anything more off-putting than looking out a window and realizing that the Lincoln Tunnel traffic crawling down Ninth Avenue commands a more serene vista than the scuffed and shabby room where you’re about to dine?) Pressed for time, the reservationist forgave my late arrival yet things got off to a bumpy start when a few simple menu questions left my waiter befuddled. So without help I settled on the two-flight tasting of crudo for which the restaurant is famous. Arriving first, a trio of winners: a plump oyster, satisfying and briny, diver scallop in tangerine-pressed olive oil and peppercorns, and my favorite, local porgy with flaky sea salt. The second plate offered more mixed results: beautifully marbled Arctic char was oddly cut and improbably stringy, a Cherry Stone clam ceviche had all the unpleasant mouth-feel of a spicy rubber band, and yet razor clams with chilis, scallion and mint were delicious and invigorating. (I could easily pop back a dozen and not bat an eye.) The inconsistencies continued with the arrival of polipo, a perfectly charred – and for $17, entirely too small – piece of flavorful octopus on a bland bed of giant corona beans, which were themselves perched atop a flavorless mound of undressed frisée. House made fusilli with gulf shrimp and zucchini flowers was ultimately fine – yet the reality of a few wilted greens tossed into some pasta didn’t quite deliver on the promise inherent in those ethereal spring blossoms. Nobody seems to be in charge at Esca – the contrariety is evident not only between courses but often within a single dish. It’s all the more frustrating because you can sense the good intentions even if the follow-through never delivers. Dessert, alas, didn’t deliver either – though I must admit it never even got the chance. I mentioned to the waiter at the start of service how I needed to be firmly out the door by 7:30. At 7:40 she wandered over oblivious with a dessert menu in hand. That inability to sustain a thought, I’m afraid, explains the Esca experience in a nutshell.

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