Pizza Cotta Bene
291 3rd Avenue, Brooklyn, NY (map); 718-722-7200
Pizza style: New York, Grandma, Sfincione
Oven type: Gas-fired Deck
The skinny: They've got great versions of pretty much every major NY-style of pizza.
Price: Slices start at $2.50
Now call me out on this if you think I'm wrong, but has anyone noticed that it's getting harder and harder to get a good New York slice in New York? It seems like most new pizzerias of note in New York these days are of the Neapolitan and/or hipster variety. Rarely do you find a new place that's content just doing well-executed, old-school favorites. We're talking deck-oven, by-the-slice, nothing fancy, real New York slices, crisp Sicilians, and chewy grandma slices.
Sure, dollar slice joints are springing up left and right, but you'd be hard pressed to describe the pizza in them as either "good" or even "old school New York." Places like Best Pizza in Williamsburg are old-school-ish and no doubt delicious, but wood-fired ovens and hipster prices push it out of the classic slice-joint category.
On the other hand, good old-school New York style slice places continue to close in every borough. What this means is that New York pizza in New York is in its twilight phase. Perhaps I'm looking at the past through pepperoni-tinted glasses, but I remember the days when a decent slice could be found on nearly every street corner, whatever borough you were in. Is it only a matter of time before being able to find a decent slice in every neighborhood will be nothing but a fond cheese-lined memory?
Actively fighting this eventuality is Pizza Cotta Bene, a pizzeria in Gowanus that on paper is new (they opened just over a year ago), but you wouldn't know it by looking at it. Everything from the cheap interior tables, to the soda fountain, to the glass display case showing a half dozen by-the-slice selections looks just like the pizzerias of my youth, and good news: the pizza is good. Great, even.
There's nothing fancy about any of their slices. The plain slice is a sixth of a pie topped with a bright, fresh, thankfully dried-herb-free tomato sauce topped with a slick of melted, lightly browned aged mozzarella. The crust is crisp with an even golden-brown appearance—none of that artful charring that seem to be de rigeur for new pizzerias—and a nice layer of chewy, doughy bread right underneath the sauce.
It's just a plain slice, done really, really well.
The same crust comes with big filets of sweet-tart, juicy canned imported Italian tomatoes in their Margherita slice, the aged mozzarella swapped out for slabs of stretchy, melted fresh mozzarella from Lioni Latticini in Dyke Heights. This was my favorite slice, with a perfect balance of juice, fat, stretch, and crunch.
My mother, on the other hand (yep, my mom still buys me pizza sometimes), preferred the more robust grandma slice. It's got the same basic flavor profile as the plain, but with a more significant chew and a shatteringly crunchy bottom.
Vodka sauce slices seem to be cropping up all over the place these days. Essentially a plain slice made with fresh mozzarella and a sauce cut with heavy cream and vodka, it's a richer, more buttery-textured version of the original, and one that I can occasionally get behind. I'm much more into that trend than the artichoke-dip-on-a-pizza trend started by the guys at Artichoke Basille's. (Cotta Bene has one too).
You guys all know what sfincione is, right? You know, the traditional Sicilian pizza made with a foccacia-like crisp, oily base topped with plenty of onions and breadcrumbs flavored with olive oil and grated cheese?
Well Pizza Cotta Bene has got a pretty serious one—I'd even put it up against Famous Ben's in Soho, though Cotta Bene loses some authenticity points for opting to add chunks of fresh mozzarella to theirs. (Authenticity be damned, this thing is delicious!)
And yeah, no old-school pizzeria would be complete without buttery, oily, chewy, salty, garlic-slathered garlic knots. Cotta Bene's are about as slathered as they come. I love the flavor of cheesy garlic butter on my fingers. Tastes like... victory. Or childhood, or something like that.
The only problem, of course, is that this place IS IN GOWANUS. (Lucky you if you call it your neighborhood pizza joint). Luckily, there are still enough old-school New York pizzerias around that I can find one relatively close to me wherever I am, but the day is coming when they'll be so few and far between that pizzerias like Cotta Bene will cease to be neighborhood hangouts and transform into actual destination dining.
Let's hope that day comes later rather than sooner.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.