February 2014

Teri Vlassopoulos


New York Pizza Minus the New York

There's a scene in an episode of Louie where Parker Posey's character takes Louis C.K. on a date to Lower East Side delicatessen institution Russ & Daughters. For a good solid minute, you witness the two them ecstatically eating herring, smoked salmon, bagels spread thickly with cream cheese and roe. "I can't believe I've never been to that place before," he says afterward. I couldn't believe it either, because even I knew about it, and I've never lived in New York City. It filtered into my consciousness the way New York City does, whether you seek it out or not. Even by idly following food news, one invariably learns more about NYC-based restaurants than any other in North America. While I've only been to one of these places, I could describe them to you: Momofuku, Prune, Les Halles, Balthazar, Babbo. And non-restaurants too, like Russ & Daughters or Zabar's or the salad bar at the Whole Foods in Union Square.

A recent restaurant to enter my consciousness is Roberta's. Much coverage has been given to Roberta's Cookbook, which was included in most best-of lists at the end of 2013. Part origin myth, part recipes, the book walks the reader through the chronology of converting a cinderblock warehouse in industrial Bushwick to one of the busiest restaurants in America.

The allure of Roberta's story is rooted in how blindly the founders went into the venture and how well they succeeded. They weren't restauranteurs or chefs and they had very little money; they just wanted to make a place for themselves and their friends. They acknowledge their hard work but hide it under a veneer of slacker casualness. It takes equal parts tremendous self-confidence and naivety to open a pizzeria without actually knowing how to make pizza, although they eventually learn in Italy. But, typical of the tone of the book, when recounting that adventure they focus more on the part of the story where they arrive and immediately get drunk on grappa ("The next memory we have is of a crazy dude who looks like Mel Gibson yelling at us in Italian.") The collages of pictures in the book are mostly of parties or people in various stages of undress. There are a few passages explaining the inevitable downsides, but the good times far outnumber the bad.

It's maybe because they started from scratch that the recipes are intuitive and easy to follow. The first half of the book is purely pizza and covers every aspect from dough (two ways -- with your own starter or a commercial one) to homemade mozzarella to sauce (just whip up some San Marzanos with olive oil and salt). And once you start making pizza at home, it gets addictive. After a first experiment making a decent Margarita and a better Millenium Falco (sauce, toasted bread crumbs, parmigiano, basil, red onion, sausage), I wanted to make something even better, something with the charred bubbles you see in the book's pictures. So, I sought out the cheaper unglazed quarry tiles they recommend rather than a pizza stone to make the oven even hotter. I'm still not there yet, but I am trying.

The following vegetable, meat, and seafood sections also focus on simple recipes or techniques, but are rooted in unusual ingredients like Poulet Rouge or 'nduja. In the desserts section, the gingerbread requires an odd assortment of spices that I'll continue to add to other gingerbread recipes from now on (toasted caraway seeds, coriander seeds, juniper berries, black peppercorns, celery salt).

I was in New York City for a few days after Christmas and when we decided to go out for pizza, we went to Roberta's. After all, the introduction to the book says, "To experience Roberta's, you have to visit it." The restaurant doesn't take reservations, but it was just two of us and I innocently assumed we would be able to at least slip in at the bar. I expected a wait, but when we were told it was two and a half hours, I wavered. From our vantage point we could see how the shoutiness of the place could be fun. It smelled good and it was warm, and it was cold outside. But we were hungry and waiting two and a half hours for pizza is, well, ridiculous. We ordered pizzas to go instead.

Bushwick, a northern part of Brooklyn, is also a large part of Roberta's identity. When the founders started the restaurant in 2007, the neighborhood was still "wild western enough that we could afford it." "We liked the space for the same reason we liked the neighborhood," they write. "It was blank." You never see the word "gentrification" in the book (although, you do see "anarchy"), but it's hard these days to read something about Bushwick without it coming up, without a reference to the surges in rent prices or changes in cultural makeup. While a space can be "blank," assuming that an entire neighborhood was lying in wait to be converted into something else erases a multitude of stories, lifetimes. It's off-putting. While we waited, we walked around the converted warehouses, popped into the wine store and the organic grocery store and it was impossible to not think about gentrification, about how things change, about what's left out of origin myths and buzz.

When they handed the pizza over to us, they called us a cab as well. I held the warm boxes on my lap and the cabbie told us that he hadn't been to Roberta's yet (the wait, his hours), but that he'd heard good things. We ate the pizza with a bottle of wine on the floor of our temporary place -- it was nice. A few days later, back at home in Toronto, we tried to replicate the pizza from the book. It wasn't nearly as good, but it was fun to make: following their directions for "slapping out" a round of dough, peering into the hot oven and watching the cheese melt into puddles. In the end these experiences were better than waiting and eating at Roberta's itself, and, from reading the cookbook, have more in common with the spirit that sparked it. So, I can assure you that you don't have to visit the restaurant. You don't even have to go to New York City.

Teri Vlassopoulos lives in Toronto. She writes about food at http://waystocookanegg.tumblr.com and writing and life at http://bibliographic.net.