Or, 'This Is Where You're Ordering Pizza From Now, Park Slope'
Peppe's Pizza & Panini
Address: 597 Fourth Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11215 (b/n 17th and 18th streets, Park Slope; map)
Oven Type: Gas-fired, steel-deck oven
Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Payment: Cash and cards
Price: $16 for large plain pie (18 inches); $12 for small (12 inches)
Recommended Options: Order the plain pie and ask for a mixture of regular mozz, fresh mozz, and the imported Pecorino-Romano.
The Skinny: This newcomer to the Park Slope pizza scene is being compared to Di Fara, and while that side-by-side is a little premature, it offers a stand-up pie that's miles beyond that of any conventional-oven pizzeria currently operating in the neighborhood. If you live in the Slope, this is your new go-to delivery pizzeria.
Even so, apart from visits to Franny's on special occasions or delivery orders placed solely to stave off hunger when all other late-night options are closed, I hardly look forward to eating pizza in the neighborhood.
Enter Peppe's Pizza & Panini, which actually has me excited again about Park Slope pies and slices.
I first heard about Peppe's when Slice reader Mark H. emailed me about it a couple weeks ago and included a link to a thread on Chowhound that at the time consisted of only the original poster. (By the time I left the office at 7:30 p.m. that night, someone had chimed in on the thread asking the inevitable "how does it compare to Di Fara?" question.)
I hightailed it there after work that night, ready to dismiss the Di Fara comparison. (I mean, come on!) But after trying a reheated slice, then a small made-to-order pie on the strength of that one sliceand then a few more pies here and there over the last couple of weeksI can see where the Chowhounders are going with that comparison.
The crust is crisp and bready, with nice hole structure and springiness at the edges. Unlike run-of-the-mill slice joints, there's some character to this foundation. It's not a perfect, soulless circle or a barely browned disk. There's some evidence of the handmade about it and some nice color to it, to boot. My only complaint is that it could stand some more salt, as it suffers from blandness once you get to the end crust.
The sauce (made from canned imported San Marzano tomatoes) tastes as fresh as you'd want it to be. It's reminiscent of the bright, fresh-tasting, lightly seasoned sauces used by the coal-oven giantsa sauce that lets the flavor of the tomatoes shine.
And the cheese, well, this is where I think much of the Di Fara comparison both stems from and breaks down.
Like Dom DeMarco at Di Fara, Peppe's pizza-maker sprinkles on a liberal amount of sharp aged cheesein this case, Romano instead of DeMarco's grana padano. It adds a tangy flavor that serves as a nice counterpoint to the more subtle sauce, and its sharp saltiness makes up for the lack of salinty elsewhere.
Unlike Dom, however, Peppe's uses Grandé brand pizza cheese, which is probably the best commercial cheese you're going to find before you start getting into Di Fara territory with locally made cheeses or expensive imported Italian options. Peppe's keeps a number of the Grandé cheeses on hand: regular mozzarella (i.e., the yellow stuff, not the white, fresh stuff), fior di latte (the white, fresh stuff), and a domestic Romano.
Additionally, owner Peppe Salvitti keeps in house a very good, real Pecorino-Romano (imported from Italy and made of sheep's milk, as opposed to Grandé's less-sharp cow's milk Romano) that he uses in salads and on the Peppe Pie (mozzarella, prosciutto, tomato sauce, Pecorino-Romano, arugula). Just ask, and he's more than willing to sub the Italian Romano for the domestic. And, my friends, it makes a world of difference; the sharp, grainy cheese totally carries a cold morning-after slice.
Between the sauce and the cheese, Pepe's pizzaman, Mike, lays down a healthy dose of fresh basil, which also gives the slice or pie a pleasant, slightly pungent note.
I hate comparing the place to Di Fara, though. Especially since the web-savvy Salvitti, who has closely followed the Chowhound thread on his pizzeria, says he's not trying to be the next Dom DeMarco. The ingredients required, he says, would make for a more costly slice or pie, and he's not sure if his clientele will pony up for it yetespecially at a place that's barely two months old.
He did talk about trying a similar cheese blendone that approximates the Di Fara formula, using the Grandé regular mozzarella with some fresh mozz mixed in, followed by the Italian Pecorino-Romano. And, he's amenable to making such a pie for you if you ask for it. I did so the last time I ordered delivery and was impressed with the result. It's going to become my baseline pie order there.
For all the strengths of this pie, one weakness (apart from the aforementioned lack of saltiness in the dough) has been the varying doneness of the crust. Most times I've gotten pies cooked through perfectly with beautiful color on the end crust and in the upskirt view (right), but once or twice I've gotten an undercooked crust, and Raphael, a colleague here at SliceSerious Eats HQ who also lives in Peppe's delivery range, has reported the same. (Though he tells me that over the weekend he ordered a piewith the Italian Pecorino-Romanoand it was cooked perfectly.)
The Pizzaman Behind the Pizzaman
The real magic behind Peppe's pies comes courtesy of "Mike Pizzaman" (right) as he's billed on the site. And it's the kind of story that sells nicely. Peppe had orginally planned to open an Italian sandwich shop, but a friend convinced him to take the space he's in now, which was outfitted as a pizzeria. The friend advised him to do the sandwich thing and hire a pizzaiolo to do the pizza thing. In talking to Peppe, it almost seemed as if pizza were an afterthought, and in fact, he says he's never made pizza in a commercial setting.
And then along comes Mike. Mike had recently moved back to Brooklyn after having spent 20-some years in Allentown, Pennsylvania, running a number of pizzerias in the area, including one inside Dorney Park. Mike lives nearby and was passing the pizzeria en route to a job interview when he stopped in to chat with Peppe pre-opening. They get to talking, Peppe learns about Mike's pizza background, finds out he's in the job market, and boom! he's got himself a pizzaiolo.
Peppe's take on things is to let Mike run with it. And that hands-off policy gives Mike free rein to invent some wild pies, among them a stuffed pizza (right) that was actually pretty good. (I'm generally not a fan of stuffed pies.) But he's got the basics down pat so there's no need to worry about the whole affair devolving into the salad- or pasta-topped pizza madness of Famous-Original-Ray's-Famous proportions.
In talking to Mike and Peppe, it's clear that both these guys love food, know what's good, and care deeply about their menu items and their customers. And they're not shy about sharing that enthusiasm with you. Walk in and chat a bit, and they'll likely give you samples of some fresh homemade soup that Mike cooks up on a small stove to the left of the pizza oven. (The chicken soup was especially good and tasted like my mom's.)
If you're there while they're brewing espressoin one of those little Moka Express potsyou'll likely be treated to an after-slice shot. On the occasions I've gotten delivery, Peppe himself has driven the pizzas to my door, along with a complimentary bottle of soda. Raphael tells similar stories of freebie sodas.
I've ordered delivery more than I've eaten in simply because the place is small. There are no tables here, just a shallow bar along the front and at one side of the dining area, with maybe six stools total. For such a small space, though, it's well put together and clean (above)a welcome relief after stepping in from this otherwise grungey part of Fourth Avenue between 17th and 18th streets. The framed history of pizza Margherita, Italian movie stills, and requisite Sinatra mugshot are nice touches, too.
Other Menu Items
This being a pizza blog, I've not really sampled the panini end of the Peppe's spectrum. I've had a prosciutto-ricotta panini that was good but that sat all by its lonesome after a couple bites, in favor of the pizza.
I can, however, recommend the calzones. They're maybe a touch too bready, but they're deep-fried, which gives them a crisp-chewy texture. I've had the ricotta-and-mozzarella variety, with a little sauce mixed in and extra sauce on the side for dipping. It's probably one of the better deals on the menu, at $5 for a calzone that's about 12 inches on its longest side.
Park Slope, if you're looking for your new go-to pizza or take-out place, this is it.