Sam Sifton Too Good for 'The City's Best Pizza'

Motorino, brussels sprouts pizza

The brussels sprouts and pancetta pizza is, according to Sam Sifton, "Like something from a magic act, a dog speaking BBC English. It is great and unsettling, far better than imagination would dictate." Translation: "Good." [Photograph: Robyn Lee]

What do those New York Times stars mean? What distinguishes a "good" restaurant from a great one, a three-star from a four? It's a question often debated, never resolved, and hardly furthered by Sam Sifton's review this week of Motorino.

My problem is not that he is so audacious as to name the city's best pizza. (We can't fault him for that.) Nor do I disagree with his conclusion. (Slice's love for Motorino, pages 1 through 4.) But in this review, the preeminent food critic of New York City implicitly makes the claim that pizza can never be more than just "good."

Because Sifton likes the pizza—he really likes the pizza. In fact, I think it's almost fair to say that he couldn't imagine a pizza better.

Motorino is having a moment. That seems fair. It serves the city's best pizza.

Perhaps the problem is one of consistency—some off days, some on?

...It does so consistently, at both locations, whether Mr. Palombino is cooking or not... Multiple visits to the restaurants confirm: Motorino pies are great hot out of the oven, 5 minutes later, 10. You can order too much, watch a pie go cool on the plate, eat it anyway and discover: terrific. You can order pizzas to take out, drive them across the boroughs in freezing conditions, get home and reheat the pies: still terrific.

But there's only so much variety in pizza; is Palombino a one-trick pony?

A winter-special pie of brussels sprouts and smoked pancetta, dressed with mozzarella, garlic and pecorino, is like something from a magic act, a dog speaking BBC English. It is great and unsettling, far better than imagination would dictate.

Fine, then. But the other food must not be worth eating.

Mr. Palombino has put thought into appetizers: a wonderfully bright and flavorful farro salad, say ... or a plate of nutty, rich, fire-roasted mortadella that could serve as the explanation for the inclusion of fried bologna in the good-food hall of fame... A paragon of beet salad.

All right; the rest of the food is impressive. The atmosphere must be lacking. But at the Williamsburg restaurant, according to Sifton, you'll find:

...a large high-ceilinged room with warm incandescent lighting over wooden floors and soft-hued marble, the scent of the wood oven and the taste, against a cold Peroni, of transcendent pizza.

Sifton's thesis seems to be this: while other artisan pizzerias have popped up all over the city, "Motorino kept chugging along. And in the process, it became something more than an excellent pizzeria. It became a good restaurant." In other words—an excellent pizzeria, in a comfortable location, at a good value, with a reasonably extensive menu, can never be more than a "good" restaurant.

Had Sifton reviewed, say, Di Fara—a pizzeria that does only that, in a location steeped in history, animated by its owner, but, from an objective sense, essentially a charmless cafeteria—I may have been a bit more sympathetic to a one-star review. But by his own admission, Motorino is essentially, with the exception of one or two starters, as perfect as a sit-down pizzeria could be. And that, in his eyes, merits only a single star. It appears pizzerias are inherently second-class restaurants.

And though comparing the paper's previous critic, Frank Bruni, to Sifton may be like comparing, well, New York pizza to Chicago, it's worth noting that Bruni gave Co., whose pizza he found promising but imperfect, one star—and that he gave Franny's, equal parts restaurant and pizzeria, two stars.

The lesson learned? Not a new one—that the Times star system is arbitrary and confusing, privileges pricey restaurants over modest ones, ambitious projects over well-executed ones. Recent restaurants that scored more highly than Motorino? Casa Lever, where "none of the particularly groundbreaking," some of the pastas are called "not great," "less interesting, and not good"; Oceana, "in some ways a very good restaurant... but not entirely a pleasant one."

Ultimately, I'd imagine, whether they earn one or two stars from the paper won't make a difference in Motorino's bottom line; I'm thrilled to see them recognized so widely for the pizza whose virtues we've been extolling since Day One. I just wish the Times would put their stars where their mouths appear to be.