As Brooklyn’s long and storied pizza tradition continues to attract new practitioners of the doughy art, the question arises in the mind of the Underground Gourmet: What is Brooklyn-style pizza? Is it the lumpen and glistening slice, as perfected by Di Fara? The tender Neapolitanish pie at Totonno’s? The cheese-under-sauce slab of L&B? There is no easy answer, as Domino’s discovered a year and a half ago, when its attempt to channel the borough’s crust-loving culinary spirit was met with the kind of loathing and contempt usually reserved for serial killers and dogfight impresarios.
In such an eclectic but persnickety pizza landscape, some of Brooklyn’s newest contenders have nothing in common besides gumption, enthusiasm, and sheer determination to produce credible pies in the unlikeliest of surroundings, as the U.G. discovered on a recent pizza-eating binge. South Brooklyn Pizza, the month-old, dimly lit and oddly configured annex of the Carroll Gardens Irish bar P.J. Hanley’s, is the perfect example. “It takes balls to call a place South Brooklyn Pizza, and it takes balls not to have any toppings,” says owner Jim McGown, a real-estate developer turned pizzaiolo. He bought Hanley’s over two years ago, inherited a dilapidated coal-burning bakery oven and restored it to pizza-making condition, and then polled the neighborhood cognoscenti for pizza-making tips. “Leonardo’s was very helpful, Caputo’s was helpful,” says McGown. “But not knowing anything is really the secret.” This unabashedly amateur approach has given rise to a distinct style: ovoid in shape, medium-thin-crusted, with a simple sauce of crushed San Marzano tomatoes and a medley of cheese, including fresh mozzarella, fontina, Asiago, and Parmigiano-Reggiano (but not, McGown takes pains to ensure, all in the same bite). It’s not the cheese combo, tasty as it is, that sets South Brooklyn apart, but its signature char. “It’s gotta be borderline burnt, so it doesn’t have that doughiness,” says McGown. But the pies we tried went beyond that and had sections as blackened as Paul Prudhomme’s favorite frying pan.
Another way McGown achieves his desired texture is by serving the pies on oak boards—a pizza epiphany that came to him at the Home Depot. The ubiquitous tin tray is a crust’s worst enemy, he believes, as it fosters liquid reabsorption, which is why the first slice at most fabled joints tastes terrific, but “the second one sucks.” Still, McGown appreciates aspects of the venerable pizzerias that came before him, most of them represented in the photos adorning South Brooklyn’s walls. “They’re not my competition,” says McGown, who restricts his menu to the single-style pie, free bread sticks, and brick-oven chocolate-chip cookies. “These are my brethren.”
Actually, with its pubby vibe and booming, up-tempo soundtrack, South Brooklyn would seem to have more in common with Toby’s Public House, a bustling South Slope sports bar with three flat-screens and a Sicilian pizzaiolo manning the beehive brick oven. Despite a seemingly schizophrenic concept, Toby’s twelve-inch pies are much more satisfying than your typical pub grub, and the olive-oil-anointed Bufalina D.O.C., in particular, demonstrates an ideal sauce-to-buffalo-mozzarella balance. Toby’s pies are wet toward the middle, thin and crisp around the edges, and nicely kissed with wood-smoke flavor. They’ve already become a neighborhood draw—as has Bam’s beef jerky, made by Bam the bartender and sold in $5 Ziploc baggies. “Even the cops are coming in for it,” Bam told us himself.
While South Brooklyn Pizza and Toby’s Public House serve what can loosely be categorized as bar pies, Roberta’s doesn’t. The Bushwick restaurant doesn’t even have a liquor license (yet). What it does have is an irresistibly appealing cinder-block-chic charm, a laid-back hipster vibe, a backyard with a vintage Mercedes that serves as a planter, and a lovely fire-engine-red pizza oven imported from Italy. As far as Brooklyn pizza philosophies go, if South Brooklyn’s McGown is a certified topping-phobe, Roberta’s Chris Parachini is the anti-McGown, a man whose motto might be “So many toppings, so little time.” Although there is a classic twelve-inch Margherita here, dabbed with good, creamy house-made mozzarella, and a tomato-only Rosso, “it seemed cheesy and stupid to be in Brooklyn and go for some strict definition of Neapolitan-style pizza,” says Parachini. Which explains the existence of the jalapeño-flecked, Hawaiian-inspired Da Kine pie; the dare-to-dream marriage of a Margherita pizza and a potato-egg-sausage-and-jalapeño mash-up called Paiges Breakfast Burrito; and the White & Green, a salad pizza topped with lemon-dressed arugula. If that reads California Pizza Kitchen on paper, it doesn’t at the table. Even the most seemingly overwrought combo is surprisingly well-balanced in flavor and relatively minimalist in approach. The only problem—and it’s not insurmountable—is that Roberta’s dough still needs work. It can be pale and bland, flimsily thin in some spots and slightly tough in others. That Roberta’s triumphs over this flaw is a tribute to its strengths, which include a commitment to making almost everything in-house, from lardo and pancetta to the tagliatelle that form the basis of an unusually light, duck-egg carbonara. What isn’t made on the premises is assiduously sourced, whether it’s the Benton’s ham draped over local asparagus or the seasonally appropriate ramps and spring garlic. The aesthetic is part Franny’s and part Queen’s Hideaway, to invoke two other celebrated Brooklyn restaurants, and even without the pizza, Roberta’s would be a worthy destination. Its pies, like those of Brooklyn itself, might not be easily categorizable, but they’re eminently unique and handcrafted, with attitude to spare.