American Flatbread: A Dose of Sweetness at NY Pizzeria
205 Hudson St, New York, NY 10013 (Map); 212-776-1441; americanflatbread.com
Pizza type: Flatbread
Oven type: Clay, wood-fired
The Skinny: Toppings-heavy thin crust pies land on the sweet side; stick with the basics for best results.
Price:Salads: $6.50-8.50; Pizzas: $10-17 (small); $13-22 (large)
As longtime fans of American Flatbread's frozen pizzas, we were pretty jazzed to learn that the Vermont operation was opening a restaurant in our own backyard. The company got its start in 1990, as a hybrid pizzeria-wholesale bakery based out of a farmhouse in Waitsfield, VT. Owner George Schenk prepared his par-baked frozen pies Mondays-Thursdays, serving the fresh stuff to diners on Friday and Saturday nights. Over the years, he has gone on to open two successful franchise locations in Vermont; the new restaurant, run by Tribeca Rooftop owner Billy Reilly, marks American Flatbread's very first foray into New York.*
Schenk tapped into the locavore movement early on, with an emphasis on organic ingredients—often sourced directly from the farm adjacent to his flagship restaurant—and humanely-raised meats. Coupled with the fact that any of their pizzas can be ordered on a gluten-free crust from Peace of Mind Bakery ($4), American Flatbread's menu will undoubtedly be a draw to those seeking relatively healthful, eco-friendly pizza.
*A now-void licensing agreement with Flatbread Company also gave birth to a string of 11 markedly similar menus across New England, Canada, and Hawai'i.
Like much of Tribeca's commercial real estate, the space is cavernous, featuring high ceilings and wrap-around picture windows. During daylight hours, the sun-soaked dining room has a business-casual appeal in keeping with Reilly's goal of attracting the local lunch crowd. Come evening, the lights are dimmed, throwing the oven's glow into sharp relief. Bar-style seating gives curious diners the opportunity to watch American Flatbread's pies slide in and out of the wood-fired oven, made of clay hand-dug from Schenk's Waitsfield property. It's far from cozy, but considering its size, the restaurant manages to give off a warm, inviting atmosphere.
There's a definite Ben & Jerry's element to American Flatbread, and not just because these folks happen to hail from Vermont. Humble beginnings and boundless enthusiasm are part of it—both brands seem to reflect a genuine excitement for executing a classic American staple, with an of-the-people-by-the-people, can-do attitude. There are the fanciful topping combinations, like Mopsy's Kalua Pork ($16; $21), that come with eyebrow-raising descriptions—some long enough to fill a small pamphlet ("House smoked free-range pork shoulder, homemade organic mango BBQ sauce, organic red onions, pineapple, VT Butter & Cheese Chevre, whole milk mozzarella, Blythedale Farm Cooksville Grana, Grana Padano and fresh herbs," for example).
And then there's the more literal side—a touch of dessert-like sweetness to the pies. It's a trait that Ed Levine noticed back in '05, when reviewing their frozen pizzas for A Slice of Heaven. "The only slightly strange aspect of this pizza was its sweet smell," he recalls. "Sure enough, when we looked on the box for ingredients, there it was, pretty high up on the ingredient list: pure Vermont maple syrup."
That syrup makes its way into any number of dishes on the menu—American Flatbread considers it a signature ingredient, using it as their primary sweetener in everything from salad dressing to sausage. Luckily, sweetness isn't endemic to the pies at American Flatbread, nor is it always a bad trait, though it may not appeal to all palates. The aforementioned Mopsy's Kalua Pork, for instance, gets a pretty strong tart-sweet hit from the pineapple, not to mention the mango barbecue sauce. The pie itself is not for the weak of heart, and it's definitely not for the pizza purist. In fact, it's so toppings-heavy that the crust seems more afterthought than cornerstone. But risk-takers inclined toward dense, hearty meals and punchy, in-your-face flavors may find Mopsy's right up their alley.
The New Vermont Sausage ($15; $20), on the other hand, brings more of an earthy sweetness to the table, combining maple-fennel pork sausage, sundried tomatoes, and caramelized onions. Mushrooms, mozzarella, herbs, and Grana offer some counterbalance, but my sausage was dry and grainy, with a strangely bittersweet aftertaste.
Even the Spiced Pecan & Winter Vegetable Salad ($8.50) fell on the sweet side, with a syrupy orange-basil vinaigrette that over-emphasized the sugary roasted beets and squash.
The dough, at least, is free of sweeteners. The wood-burning oven hovers at about 800º F, for a 4-12 minute cook (depending on size and toppings). American Flatbread's pies are thin, verging on crackery near the center, with generous blistering at the edge and a smattering of dark, smoky spots beneath. Each pie is brushed in housemade garlic oil and sliced in a grid, party-style. The rise is nice, with an airy hole structure, and the interior is chewy, if a bit dry. Their formula seems to be a little low on salt, but since every flatbread on the menu comes topped with Grana Padano and Blythdale Farm Cookeville Grana, it's hardly the end of the world.
If your tastes lean strictly savory, we recommend sticking to the basics. We found Schenk's Medicine Wheel ($11; $15) to be even-keeled and flavorful, neither too sweet nor too bland. Similarly, the TriBeCa Community Revolution Bread ($13; $18) hit a friendly balance. It was a bit difficult to find the tomato sauce under the thickly layered cheese, and it was definitely short on salt, but the dusting of herbs and mushrooms gave a warm, woodsy aroma to the pie; for a cold winter's night, it definitely hit the spot.
American Flatbread may not serve up the greatest pizza in town, or even downtown, for that matter. But in just over a month, the restaurant has garnered its fair share of praise. In a neighborhood like Tribeca, where options are limited, it's a dependable destination—perhaps the best in the area—that's bound to satisfy pizza cravings and appetites alike.
About the author: Niki Achitoff-Gray is the associate editor of Serious Eats and a recent graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She's pretty big into oysters, offal, and most edible things. You can follow her on Twitter at @eatandcry.