Daily Slice: Cafe Catania, Brooklyn Heights
Daily Slice gives a quick snapshot each weekday of a different slice or pie that the folks at the Serious Eats empire have enjoyed lately. Welcome a new man on the NYC Slice beat, Michael Berman of Pizzacentric!
Named after the owners' hometown—which is the second largest city in Sicily—Catania on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn Heights is neither pizzeria nor restaurant. Rather, it's a laid-back and cheerful tavola calda-style food place that—without an ounce of pretension—prepares an impressive array of excellent Sicilian food.
For pizza, Catania offers only Sicilian style. In addition to plain (mozzarella, tomato sauce, and Parmesan), each day they rotate through a tempting repertoire of topping combinations.
During my recent visit, I had a hard time choosing. Besides plain, also on display were "Fatoressa" (tomato sauce, mozzarella, olives, green peas, and scallion); "Capricciosa" (translated from Italian, it means "woman who wants everything"—at Catania, it has tomato sauce, mozzarella, green peas, ham, and boiled egg); mushroom & green peas; broccoli & olives; and "alla Norma"—which is what I decided to have.
"Pizza alla Norma" ($3.75), a crusty spin on the classic pasta dish, tastes straight out of Nonna's kitchen (in fact, the non-English-speaking mother of one of the owners was busy cooking the entire time I was there). Layered from bottom to top, the "Norma" features Catania's one-inch-thick crust, tomato sauce, and mozzarella—plus fried eggplant, coarse-grated ricotta salata, and fresh basil. Weighing in at over a quarter-pound, this square works as a meal unto itself.
Catania's pizza crust is neither bread-y nor undercooked like those of so many New York Sicilian pies. Instead, it's sturdy and crunchy but not burnt or brittle; it has just enough softness to convey sensuality of texture; and a hint of salt works to bring its flavor in line with what lurks above: melt-in-your-mouth strands of perfect (which means oily) fried eggplant, an abundant scatter of creamy ricotta salata, and a refreshing sprig of basil leaves. These bold flavors dart around on one's taste buds like a soccer ball heading downfield thanks to precision passing: goal-lllllllllll!
Nestled along the border of two affluent Brooklyn neighborhoods and near enough to the courts for a jury duty lunch, Catania is well worth a little travel. I like that it serves great pizza (and other foods) without the bustle typical of New York's popular slice spots. Customers at Catania sometimes appear a bit smug. They have every right to: Catania is the real deal. Whatever your have, be sure to save room for one of the homemade desserts. My favorite is the pasta di mandorla (almond cookie). For $1 a pop, it's a perfect finish for one's (local) trip to Catania.
Michael Berman is a photographer and writer based in New York. He publishes multimedia food stories on his blog www.pizzacentric.com; and more frequent, sometimes mundane Twitter observations at @michaelberman.