Griddle Me This

Top billing: Unusual, exquisite toppings make the pie at Otto.Photo: Carina Salvi

The world, the Underground Gourmet has come to realize, can be divided into two factions: those who consider a mortadella sandwich breakfast and those who do not. Local members of the pro-mortadella camp (all three of you) should rush over to Mario Batali’s Otto Enoteca Pizzeria any morning between nine and eleven-thirty. Breakfast at Otto, you see, is mortadella panini. Yes, there’s blood-orange juice, cappuccino, and biscotti, too, all consumed standing up, Italian-style, at the bar, but that’s it—no bacon, no eggs, no bagels, not even a lone pane al cioccolato.

If you can suspend your normal breakfast cravings, though, you’ll discover a welcoming, sun-flooded room, the day’s newspapers spread out invitingly over marble counters, maybe some opera playing softly in the background … and yes, a stack of adorable crusty rolls stuffed with that luscious, thinly sliced lard-and-pistachio-laced sausage, a crock of tangy salsa verde on hand for garnish. Thus unfolds breakfast in Bataliland, a very particular experience that doesn’t try to be all things to all people, but nevertheless managed to seduce, by its engaging single-mindedness, even the grapefruit-and-oatmeal-inclined half of this dining duo.

Vegetarians and Atkins adherents, to be sure, might not be as charmed. In its elegant insouciance, though, breakfast at Otto represents the restaurant’s, or at least Batali’s, overriding philosophy: Give the people what they should want. Like Otto’s thin-crusted, griddle-cooked pizza, possibly the most controversial foodstuff to hit Gotham since Le Cirque’s ortolans. The whole town held its breath when Batali & Co. announced they were opening a pizzeria, and when One Fifth Avenue’s revolving door resumed spinning, the masses flocked. What they found was not pizza as we know it—and you’d be hard-pressed to find a New Yorker who doesn’t know everything there is to know about pizza—but Batali’s own creation, loosely inspired by Sardinian flatbread, lacking the familiar blistery char and puffiness that come from a wood-burning brick oven, and distinguished by a multitude of exquisite toppings. To appreciate it, you must banish all thoughts of John’s, Nick’s, Lombardi’s, Totonno’s, and the original Patsy’s. Batali’s is a different animal entirely—paler, thinner, more Middle Eastern than Neapolitan, or New York–Neapolitan, and not without its detractors.

“This is pizza?” we overheard one fussy eater comment after Otto had just opened. “Well, maybe in Norway.” In fact, Otto’s pizza, which has grown progressively lighter, crisper, and better since that early Scandinavian period, is an estimable, innovative addition to the New York pizza pantheon. And the toppings rock. There are 25 to choose from, some, like prosciutto and pesto, available only once a week, while lardo (pure fatback) is yours for the asking anytime. The sauce, a purée of canned tomatoes and olive oil painted on the dough instead of dolloped, finds a demure balance between tangy and sweet. It’s the toppings that speak loudest, though: tiny roasted broccoli florets, bitter Swiss chard and goat cheese, briny baby clams with chili and garlic, zippy salame piccante, even an impressively light, unstodgy potato, anchovy, and ricotta.

To sample these individual-size pies, you’ll have to wait for a table (or snag a seat at the bar); the hostess presents you with a “train ticket” bearing the name of an Italian town, and when your table’s ready, she writes your destination—RAVENNA or, say, BOLOGNA—on a “departures board.” The mood of the sprawling space echoes the train-station motif—casual, quick-paced, no-frills, and smoothly run by a gracious, crackerjack staff. It’s an ambience (and a menu) that fosters sharing, the best way to approach the enticing array of antipasti and snacks that precede the pizza and complement a voluminous all-Italian wine list. (As at Babbo and Lupa, wines—including some from partner Joseph Bastianich’s Friuli vineyard—are poured by the quartino, or small carafe.)

Ramekins of vegetable and fish antipasti explode with bold sweet-and-sour flavors. Spears of salsify are coated with saba (grape-must syrup); fat, juicy Alfonso olives bathe in fragrant olive oil; lush acorn-squash custard is airy as soufflé. Caponatina tastefully melds melted eggplant, orange peel, pine nuts, sweet peppers, and plump golden raisins, ingredients that reappear in a dish of tender marinated mussels. Succulent chunks of swordfish poached in olive oil and lime evoke, in texture and flavor, the richest Sicilian canned tuna, and puckery, lightly cured white anchovies share their ramekin with slivered scallions and rough croutons.

Salumi, from prosciutto di Parma to Batali-cured testa, lonza, and coppa, are beautifully presented enoteca-style, on a paper-sheathed plate. Cheese is served with brandy-soaked black cherries, truffle honey, and spicy Seville-orange mostarda, a chutneylike condiment. For something lighter, venture beyond pristine plates of arugula and romaine for less common salads: a heap of julienned celery root punctuated by bright bursts of pink grapefruit and blood orange and shards of sharp Parmigiano-Reggiano, or slivered beets dressed with horseradish and walnuts. For fried-food fiends, the fritto del giorno is an irresistible incentive for return visits. We’ve yet to make our way through a week’s worth of fritti, but we can vouch for the kitchen’s prowess with boiling oil. Light, fluffy panelle triangles are flecked with chili-pepper flakes; tiny arancine are stuffed with buffalo mozzarella and chicken-liver ragù; and Friday’s pesciolini, a plate of perfectly crisp whole-fried smelts, find themselves in the very good company of fried sage leaves and citrus peel.

Dessert at Otto means gelato—thick, rich, and well worth the $7 price tag (for two flavors). Occasionally, pastry chef Meredith Kurtzman whips up specials like a leaning tower of spumoni, three chocolate-crumbed layers looming from a pool of chocolate sauce and dried cherries, and a salt-sprinkled olive-oil gelato, garnished with figs, that’s become her signature flavor. The modest size of the gianduja hot cocoa deceives—just try finishing it (never mind the rich butter cookies it’s served with). Just like breakfast, dessert doesn’t offer a whole lot to choose from, but what’s there is undeniably, tantalizingly choice.

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Otto Enoteca Pizzeria
1 Fifth Avenue (212-995-9559). 9 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. daily. Antipasti, $4 to $21; pizza, $7 to $14. All major credit cards.

Griddle Me This