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Two New Wood Ovens in Astoria: Milkflower and Tufino
34-12 31st Avenue, Astoria, NY 11106 (b/n 34th and 35th; map); 718-204-1300; milkflowernyc.com
Pizza type: Neapolitan-ish with a strong New York accent
Oven type: Wood-burning
Setting: Dim, tight dining room bolstered by a small backyard
Service: Casual, occasionally scattered, but accommodating
Must-Haves: Green bean salad, pea and ricotta toast, spicy soppressata pie
Cost: Starters $8 to $12, pizza $9 to $16.
Compare To: Paulie Gee's, Sac's Place, Basil Brick Oven
Recommendation: Editor's pick, good for the neighborhood. Great starters and very solid pizza.
In a neighborhood with lots of solid pizza but little that's exceptional, a place that makes destination-worthy pies remains Astoria's golden unicorn. Though Basil Brick Oven is a go-to spot for Neapolitan pizza in the neighborhood, the market's gotten more crowded lately, wood burning ovens and all.
Milkflower, the more recent of two new arrivals, is Neapolitan in spirit if New York in execution. Here, the pizza is crisp enough to pick up with one hand but lithe and juicy, with a minimally altered tomato sauce and ample helpings of cheese. It bears a strong resemblance to the pies you'll find at Paulie Gee's, and if the pizza doesn't ascend to quite the same heights as the Greenpoint lion, it's still an inspiring addition to Astoria's pizza scene.
Milkflower comes by way of two brothers, Peter and Danny Aggelatos. Peter runs the front of the house and Danny runs the back, where mozzarella is made every day and pies fire in two minutes or less in a Stefano Ferrara oven. Though pizza is the star of the show, it's not the only attraction. The menu encourages you to eat your veggies, many of them freshly picked from Brooklyn Grange, and you should. A String Bean Salad ($9) included green and yellow beans so fresh they still squeaked, and the sun-dried tomato vinaigrette they're tossed with shows good balance and restraint.
The menu also has a section of Toasts ($4 each), which are decidedly not bruschetta, well-toasted slices of wholesome-tasting bread piled high with everything from peas to corn to squash to avocado. One version, with buttery leeks and thinly sliced chorizo, felt heavy even before cured egg yolk was shaved over the top. But the pea, ricotta, and lavender with lemon zest is just beautiful: the peas candy-sweet with just a little bite, the ricotta's subtleties drawn out well by its aromatic toppings.
The pizza is built on a good, if not outstanding, foundation; the crust packs some impressive yeasty flavor into a 24 hour rise, though I wish it took in more smoke from the oven. But the right toppings can make up for these imperfections. In the margherita pie, here called The Queen ($10), the tomatoes balance tang and sweetness, and the fior di latte, generously spread all over the pie, exuding a little whey, struts its freshness well.
Though as nice as the pie is, it lacks a certain savory depth that would make it exquisite. You can find that depth in the Spicy Soppressata ($16), which, as Roberta's and Paulie Gee's have shown us before, is a case for how thinly sliced, beautifully charred spicy sausage benefits from a drizzle of sweet honey. Skip the Brussels Sprout ($15) with a useless egg in the center; the pizza calls out for some acidity or salty pork product to keep your interest up.
36-08 Ditmars Boulevard, Astoria, NY 11105 (b/n 36th and 37th; map); 718-278-4800; tufinopizzeria.com
Pizza type: Neapolitan
Oven type: Wood-burning
Setting: Simple space dominated by dark woods and the glowing oven
Service: Casual, friendly
Must-Haves: Margherita and Il Greco pizzas, panini
Cost: Starters $7 to $14, pizza $9 to $16.
Compare To: Basil Brick Oven
Recommendation: Decent for the neighborhood. Fried specialties are skippable and pies can be solid but underpowered.
If Milkflower emphasizes its New Yorkishness, Tufino up on Ditmars Boulevard, just a couple months shy of its first year in business, goes more traditional. Pie man Stephen Menna, who worked the ovens at Paulie Gee's before crossing the Pulaski bridge, makes airy, soft-centered pizzas with attractive leopard spots around the rim.
Tufino also markets itself as a friggatoria, a place for fried Neapolitan snacks, and fried goodies occupy a substantial part of the menu. You can try most of them in a gargantuan sampler plate ($14) that satisfies in generosity if not exceptional quality. Starchy arancini and potato croquettes are mild and enjoyable enough with the thick, cooked tomato sauce that accompanies them, but don't expect them to break new ground beyond the red sauce classicism they embody. An imposing full-sized ball of fresh mozzarella, stuffed with soppresata and porcini mushrooms, begins and ends at excess. Consider skipping salad as well; our farro and arugula ($9), though generously portioned and well-dosed with lemon, did little to lighten up one meal, and the stale fridge flavors soaked up by the topping of ricotta salata left a sour taste in our mouths.
As for the pizza, it's best when kept simple. Baroque toppings like fior di latte and fresh ricotta with roasted pistachios, red onions, and a dusting of Parmesan ($14), or a red pie heaped with grilled and fried eggplant ($14) are needlessly heavy and awkward to eat. A simple Margherita ($11) achieves greater balance, and the cheesy Il Greco ($12), a white pie smothered in fior di latte, Fontina, Kalamata olives, oregano, and lemon, negotiates a careful balance between fat and acidity.
Menna ferments his sourdough base for 72 hours before baking, but on repeat visits I've found it lacking in the complex, tangy flavors that would do these pies so right. And though the crust is abundantly airy, cooked at a blistering 900 to 950°F, it's missing a certain smokiness that its char would suggest.
Tufino's mozzarella is also made in house, but it lacks the fresh vibrancy that you'll find at Milkflower or Basil. Of all its applications I've tried (red and white pies, fried whole), my favorite is actually in sandwich form, where a simple Caprese Panino ($8) does well to execute classic flavors.
Astoria may still be waiting for a must-try pizzeria we can shout about without reservations, but at the rate the neighborhood's going I suspect it's getting close. In the meantime there's a growing number of neighborhood joints putting out some very solid pies, charming in their own ways and worth a visit or two for the curious. Can you have an embarrassment of riches when the coins are all bronze and silver? Sure thing; it's a hell of a place to get started.