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Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Pizza and Perfection on the L Train

Cue the rock music, throw on a cool T-shirt and hop in the L train to Williamsburg – Roberta’s cures what ails you. While the possibility of a lamb dish worthy of a spot in Daniel next to a pizza might sound a bit schizophrenic, here it works just fine.

With its woodsy feel and merry, multicolored light garlands on the walls, Roberta’s, est. 2008, has a feeling of a saloon that sits not too far from the 49th parallel – one that hits full swing by 7 and stays that way till the last tippler is pushed into the Brooklyn night at closing time. I was invited by my sweetheart, Elisabeth, who’d picked up on some very strong hints on where I’d like to celebrate my birthday and we were not let down.

These guys, particularly chef Carlo Mirachi, have some serous friends in the food sourcing business. ‘Beef Carpaccio’ shows up with the marbling of something noteworthy and turns out to be Wagyu from a farm on a big, flat state out west. A drizzle of stellar olive oil creates a dreamy, one-two-three-four adagio progression between vegetal freshness, slick vegetable fat, beefy meatiness and Wagyu fat. I got as much pleasure nibbling away at it as watching Elisabeth enjoy it – something she readily encouraged.


One plate over, tiny bay scallops with crispy bits of trout skin, Meyer lemon and poppies snuggled in a bowl, reminding me of not one but two childhood favorites – Mom’s broiled scallops, and, thanks to the poppies and the almost bread-y flavor to the broth they waded in, the frozen Pepperidge Farm rolls she’d make in the oven when I was little.

The big gun, however, was the lamb breast main course, cooked sous-vide for a long time then sizzled for a short time to create a crispy/melting combination that recalls the textures of a savory crème brulée. Nearby, a comma of yogurt, dollops of a light mint aspic and gently-braised leaves of, I believe, radicchio and Swiss chard provided punctuation marks of acidity, bitterness and a faint sweetness. Any three-star restaurant would be proud to serve the dish at three times the price.


Next to the lamb, we’d ordered a pizza – this is a pizzeria, after all – and maybe because it was next to something so spectacular, our pie was the evening’s only relative whiff. The ‘Tracy Patty’ pie features tasty mozzarella, ricotta, lip-smacking boquerones (vinegar-drenched anchovies), garlic and savoy cabbage, but it lacked some juicy agent like tomatoes or more of that amazing olive oil to shuttle each slice it to its final home.


No matter. Next time we go, we’ll likely try another pie. Perhaps the ‘Voltron’ – it’s got sopressata.

While some crow that the bar-like atmosphere is an odd or uncomfortable place for food this sophisticated, we could have cared less. This is the kind of spot where you want to grab good friend or three on your birthday and have one of the best nights of the year, fussiness be damned. Mirachi’s created an American doppelganger of Sicilian chef Francesco Cassarino’s wonderful Pizzeria Caravanserraglio.

On the subway and once nibbling some of Elisabeth’s fantastic birthday cake at home, we got talking about the best dishes we’d ever had. Rare are the meals that engender that sort of conversation.

“What were the tens?” Elisabeth asked, a question that brought us around the world and back to the meal still in our bellies.

Our lamb, we agreed, was a 9 ½, the scallops a scarce point and a half behind.

“What about the Wagyu carpaccio?” I asked. “A solid eight?”

She responded without hesitation.

“That was a ten.”


261 Moore St.
(718) 417-1118

(Editor’s note: No reservations at Roberta’s - go early or wait in line.)

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Friday, June 05, 2009

Sicilian sex food

RAGUSA, Sicily

I thought Ciccio Sultano was the only Sicilian serving sex food – the kind of stuff that makes you want to forget you’re in a public place, vault the table and make a meal out of your date.


One of the things I like about Chef Francesco Cassarino and his Ragusa restaurant is that he’s not afraid to do pizzas that tend to be in the 5-10 euro range on a menu that also includes a 58 euro tasting menu; both are great values, but it’s rare to see someone with the guts and skill to do it all right.

Naturally, Cassarino is a product freak and his menu lists four types of olive oil, six salts and five kinds of pepper. Apparently, we both share a dislike for Peugeot pepper grinders (no coarse grind) but he’s ordering a special German grinder normally used by scientists to extract the most from his peppercorns. Until then, he uses a mortar and pestle crushing pepper to order.

One of the first plates with a tasting menu is an index card-sized slice of fat from a Spanish pata negra cured ham atop a similar-sized thick slice of lightly-smoked beef carpaccio with Maldon salt and specially-imported Szechuan pepper so fresh that it actually fizzes in your mouth.

Everything happens at once: textures and flavors, smoky, salty and slippery, fizzy and raw.

Damn these public places. I want to vault the table.

Ristorante - Pizzeria Caravanserraglio MAP
via P.Nenni 78

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The death of Pizza Otto

Ragusa, Sicily

Whenever I’m in the Motherland, Francesco, my good pal and stalwart guide, humors my quest to find the best pizza in Sicily.

There’s some good stuff in the south where he’s from, strong examples in Palermo and more unique, thicker pies in Trapani. We ignore the question of ‘what is real Sicilian pizza?’ and just go with our taste buds.

In the end, we got to the point where, instead of calling places by their names, we’d just call them by their score on a ten-point scale. The place in the hotel down the hill with Speedy Gonzales on the takeout box? Pizza Sette. The seaside place? Sette Punto Cinque. Reigning southern champion? La Contea in Modica, where a pie with rocket, cured wild boar and parmesan (a combination that tends to send me over the moon with glee no mater in which state I find it) which earned it the Pizza Otto title.

Before I came back to the Motherland, Francesco started hinting at a new find: a place he was calling ‘Pizza Nove Plus.’ The ‘plus’ being for the food at Ristorante - Pizzeria Caravanserraglio (which we’ll get to in another post) hidden in the outskirts of Ragusa.

As a group appetizer, we order a tomato, mozzarella and basil pie. The sauce is sweet and acidic, the crust crisp and soft with wood-fired flavor. Plus, there’s milky sensuality from the mozzarella and a crisp, fresh bite from the basil.

Pizza Otto was dethroned in one bite.

Later, after a full non-pizza meal, I get edgy, thinking that I might not be back here for a while.

After the cheese course, I find chef Francesco Cassarino wandering the floor and ask for another pizza.

Full to the gills, everyone at the table stares at me funny until it shows up, but Francesco dutifully has a slice.

The pie has a sort of flight path: “This won’t change my life,” I think over my first bites, but then the Parmesan and cured meat sweeten and begin working together.

I look over and Francesco has broken his fork-and-knife protocol and eats his pie with his hands. He pops the last bite of crust into his mouth with an ‘I-told-you-so’ smile.

Then he asks for another slice.

Ristorante - Pizzeria Caravanserraglio MAP
via P.Nenni 78

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