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Brooklyn Central Pizza: Neapolitan Pies Celebrate the Best of Two Worlds

[Photographs: Niki Achitoff-Gray]

Brooklyn Central

289 5th Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11215 (Map); 347-725-4891; brooklyncentralpizza.com  
Pizza type: Neapolitan
Oven type: Stefano Ferrara wood-fired brick oven
The Skinny: Roberto Patriarca is making truly wonderful Neapolitan-style pies in his Park Slope pizzeria, with a menu divided into traditional "Old World" toppings and inventive "New World" combos.
Price: Salads, $9; Starters, $8-12; Old World Pies, $9-18; New World Pies, $15-18

You're probably familiar with the scene: Dim lights dangle in tarnished metal cages, casting soft circles of light onto brick walls and a long, inviting bar. The yawning tiled oven beckons from a back corner. Welcoming, low-key, warm; it's the kind of place that makes you feel like you live next door. What's not to like? The staff will know you by name any minute now. Of course this is where you want to have that date on Friday, your next birthday party, your girls' night out.

It's a formula that seems to define a burgeoning class of pizzeria, of the wood-fired, Neapolitan, up-and-coming Brooklyn variety. And it looks great. But all too often, it simply doesn't add up to very good food. To the point that these days, I find myself more skeptical of an alluring décor and stunning oven than of, say, the sight of a poorly maintained corner joint. So, while I may have found Brooklyn Central charming, I wasn't exactly holding my breath for great pizza.

The wood-fired Stefano Ferrara oven ranges from the high 800s to 1000º F, depending on the volume of pies. Pizzas are in and out in 90 seconds or less. [Photograph: Alice Gao]

Boy, was I off the mark. Chef-owner Roberto Patriarca isn't just making good pizza, he's making truly wonderful Neapolitan-style pies. When we gave the Park Slope restaurant a First Look back in October, the Italian-born Patriarca was working alongside MPM frequenter Matt Hyland. The pair have since parted ways, but the menu maintains their original thematic divide between traditional "Old World" toppings and a more inventive array of "New World" combos.

The New World pizzas are all named after Brooklyn neighborhoods, in keeping with the restaurant's ode to the 5th Avenue train line that used to run through the area. There's not a strong correlation between the combos and their titles, and at times the menu feels gimmicky. But inventive and gimmicky is a far cry from wacky and ill-conceived. You'll be hard-pressed to find anything you haven't seen on a pizza before, let alone anything barbecued, deep fried, or seafoody. The distinction is more focused on classic Italian versus Italian-American, from where Patriarca sources his ingredients (more on that later) to the combinations themselves.

Leopard-spotting and the occasional charred dome are echoed by a healthy swath of spots beneath.

Toppings aside, the pizzas all share a damn fine crust. The center falls on the soupy side, but manages to thoroughly avoid sogginess. On one visit, there was some welcome crispness to the base; on another, I thought it could have used a few more seconds in the oven. Both times, though, the pillowy cornicione was tender, chewy, and studded with smoky bubbles. Patriarca also pushes the fermentation envelope, giving the bread a lively yeastiness.

The DOC ($15) emerged first, a shimmering landscape of delicate mozzarella disks and swirling rivulets of tart-sweet San Marzano tomato sauce. Patriarca tops all the Old World pies with fresh bufala mozzarella, imported from Italy. The soft, creamy bites are a special treat, particularly for the price.

Another Old Worlder, the Rapini ($16) is an impressively balanced pie. The broccoli rabe comes out remarkably supple, hitting that friendly side of al dente so crucial to bitter greens. The sausage makes for the perfect foil: Juicy, rich, and powerfully savory, it was a much-needed respite from the series of dry, mealy sausages I've encountered of late. Tied together by the mellow base of bufala mozz and that same unbelievably tender crust, it's a great winter warmer.

The cheeses on Brooklyn Central's New World pies come from Lioni Latticini, in Bensonhurst; the meats are sourced from M&S Prime Meats, conveniently located across the street from the pizzeria.

Just look at that beauty! Matte green crumbles of pistachio on a slick of buttery cheese...tantalizing, isn't it? Well, hang on to your hats, folks—I am in love with this pizza and I have a feeling it's about to make me some lifelong enemies.

The white Coney Island ($18) combines fresh cow's milk mozzarella, taleggio, pistachios, honey, and, yes, truffle oil. I wish I could side with the haters and declare that the oil makes the whole pie taste cloyingly artificial. But...it just doesn't. It probably helps that Patriarca doesn't drizzle the stuff directly onto his pizzas—he creates a ricotta-based spread that ensures an even, conservative distribution of the oil. Between the honey and the nutty sweetness of the pistachios, the Coney Island is definitely a desserty pie, so do consider requesting it to come out last; do not consider leaving it off your order.

If you somehow make it through your meal and have room for more, Brooklyn Central also serves up a variety of pizza-inspired desserts. The Banana-Nutella Calzone ($8) is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a gooey, oozing mass of banana and chocolatey hazelnut spread, encased in pizza dough and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Here's what it looks like on the inside:

I tend to find Nutella overwhelmingly sweet and dense, and this dish was no exception (my dining companions, on the other hand, polished the whole thing off in under 5 minutes). But honestly, so what? I may not be back for the dessert, but there's no doubt I'll be returning to Brooklyn Central in the very near future. Probably for a girls' night out.

About the author: Niki Achitoff-Gray is the editor of Slice and a part-time student at the Institute of Culinary Education. She's pretty big into pizza. Also, she likes offal. A lot.

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