6922 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11209 (Bay Ridge/Ovington avenues; map); 718-745-9715
Pizza Style: New York
Oven Type: Gas
Bay Ridge has changed a lot since Tony and Phil Varvara bought Elegante Pizzeria in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. That was back in the early 1980s, but Elegante actually dates back to 1960. For the first two decades of the pizzeria's existence Bay Ridge had little demographic turnover and was populated by a mix of Italian and Greek immigrants. These days the strip of Fifth Avenue is increasingly populated by Lebanese/Arab immigrants and their first-generation children. Kebab houses and mosques have replaced a number of the Italian delis and grocery stores. A store called Hot Chick next door to Elegante sells fashion to Muslim women, driving home the cultural differences; the only thing a teenager raised on American Apparel and MTV reality shows would consider hot about the clothes they sell is that they would keep you warm.
But Elegante endures despite the changes around it. Although, like its very existence, the interior seems locked in time, anachronistic even. The faded Formica tables and chairs, the menu board with irregularly matched letters, the battered floor—all look decades old. But that is only half the story. There is still life here. A pensioner reads the paper in a back, no pizza in sight, sipping a coffee brought in from elsewhere. Phil Varvara tosses pies in the front while a steady trickle of customers venture in and out. He is on a first-name basis with most of them.
You get the sense that Elegante functions as both a community center and pizzeria, at least for a segment of the Bay Ridge population.
Phil Varvara has made countless pizzas in the last 30 years. He flings the dough with seeming reckless abandon—stretching and contorting it with his fists—but somehow it ends up as a flat disk. He assembles the pie in mere seconds—the tomato sauce is slathered on with a flourish.
The sauce is followed by a layer of cheese before he thrusts the whole thing into the oven. There is nothing careful or delicate about the assembly.
Despite an extremely crisp, crunchy, blister that shattered into brown shards of crust at the cornicione the rest of the dough was well balanced texturally.
No, it did not have the burnished, sooty, mottling of a brick-oven pizza, but the crust had plenty of crunch along with a soft, pliant inner core. There was tip sag, but I welcomed it here; cooked to uniform crispness, I fear the crust would have been burned.
The sauce is perfectly suited for the task—slightly sweet with a mild tang, it is a good compliment to the equally mild cheese, a classic low-moisture mozzarella. There is a good synergy between the cheese, sauce, and crust. The slice is well balanced in all important elements.
Less successful was the Sicilian, which was just a tad underdone. The dough was raw at the center. Even if it were cooked through, I wonder if the dough might be a tad too thick and dense to make a top-notch square pie. On a positive note, the tomato sauce was vibrant and had more flavor than it did on the round pie, thanks to its greater quantity. The cheese was beyond reproach.
The pizza at Elegante is not the effete, fawned-over pie of the nouveau-artisanal pizzerias, nor the deliberate, manicured masterpieces of Di Fara, although they are cut from the same cloth as the latter. The pizza here is a straight-up New York slice, nothing fancy, probably not worth crossing bridges and tunnels for, but it is a slice that you wish you had in your neighborhood. It is a slice of pizza that has endured for decades, through economic and demographic shifts. It is a slice of Bay Ridge. And indeed of America.