One of my favorite pieces of food writing in the last twelve months has been Calvin Trillin's profile of Peter Chang, an infamously peripatetic Chinese chef who has a cadre of devoted fans who follow him from restaurant to restaurant.
I'm reminded of that story by a recent dinner at Trattoria El Greco in Astoria. It's there that you'll find Nicola Bertolotti, the lead pizzaiolo at Fornino when it opened in Williamsburg in late 2004. Bertolotti left Fornino, and we at Slice lost track of him for a while until he turned up at Toby's Public House when that bar-pizzeria opened in Park Slope in early 2008. Bertolotti made great pizza at both those places, so I was excited to learn he had moved yet again to lead the pizza program at this casual restaurant not too far from my home in Queens.
For the most part, Bertolotti keeps the flame going at El Greco, which opened in April 2010. The pizza here, Neapolitan-inspired, is undoubtedly good. It's thin, crisp, has a great balance in terms of sauce and cheese and (sometimes) toppings.
Toppings run the gamut from the expected (Margherita, Quattro Formaggi, Diavola) to the inventive (the Black Garlic Pizza followed Bertolotti over from Toby's, thankfully, while the popular Tartufata, unfortunately, did not).
Sometimes things get a bit crazy, like with the Pescatore Pizza (above; $20 or more, depending on market prices). This is what happens when you let your seafood-craving wife order one of the night's pizzas. I'm of the mind that any seafood-topped pizza should begin and end with a single seafood topping. The Pescatore opens a trawler net onto your table, delivering clams, mussels, shrimp, calamari, and scallops. It would be entirely too much, even if these items arrived sans shells. Served as it is, the pizza itself truly becomes an edible vessel for presenting the fruit of the sea. We ate the seafood and largely skipped the crust below it.
We did go in for the Zola e Pere pizza ($15, above), a white pie topped with with mozzarella and that classic combination of gorgonzola and pear, here thinly sliced. It makes for a very rich pizza, though, and is probably best ordered as part of a multipizza lineup if you're dining here with a group.
Overall the crusts at El Greco are not as quite as tender as they were at Toby's and veer more toward the drier, chewier end of the spectrum — closer to a classic New York–style crust than Neapolitan. Maybe that has something to do with the oven. Bertolotti is working with a Wood Stone gas-fired oven instead of the stone-fronted, wood-fired rustic beauty he had at Toby's. There's just something that's not quite there yet.
El Greco is good. Would I travel to Astoria from outside the neighborhood for it? Probably not. But seeing as how I live here, I've put it into my rotation as a go-to pizza spot (along with Forno Italia and Michael Angelo II).
Oh, and there's always the dessert calzone with Nutella and banana ($13):
Which I'm a sucker for.
Trattoria El Greco
3619 30th Avenue, Astoria NY 11103 (at 37th Street; map); 718-721-7400