Friday, November 23, 2007

Lucali's Pizza

575 Henry St, Brooklyn, NY

Once there was a guy, we’ll call him “Pete,” who had spoke so fervently about the pizza at Sam’s, an old-school pizza joint in Carroll Gardens, that we just had to try it. He had even gone so far as to say that it was superior to the pizza at our beloved Grimaldi’s (the renowned pizzeria under the Brooklyn bridge). As he expounded upon the virtues of Sam’s pizza, I remembered that a couple years before a co-worker of mine had been similarly exuberant. So, one day last summer we went to Sam’s and had some of the most oily, mediocre, pizza I have had in years.
Just a few weeks ago, I ran into the co-worker who had talked Sam’s up years before. He hung his head in shame upon hearing our reactions to their pizza and asked us to consider trying his new favorite pizza place around the corner from his apartment, Lucali’s on Henry street. His description of a tiny old-world pizza joint that only stays open from “6-until they run out of pizza” was enough to charm me into trying it last week.

I am shamelessly devoted to pizza and I use any excuse to try a new one. Of my many food fixations, pizza is at the top of the list. Like most New Yorkers, I become ridiculously excited in the face of a beautiful pie.
We went on a Thursday and stopped at Smith and Vine ( to pick up a bottle of wine, as I had read that there aren’t any alcoholic beverages on the menu (the corkage fee is $4). We chose a lovely Spanish wine, Bodegas Piqueras ($8), which complemented the pizza incredibly well. We arrived around 6:30 and there was a ten minute wait for a table for two. I love seeing restaurants fill up before seven, as it not only harkens back to my Mid-Western upbringing where people eat dinner around 6, but also speaks to the devotion of the patrons who arrive early by NYC standards.

We waited on a bench that faced the street, and I have to say, I was already charmed by the surrounding- no matter how long I have been in New York, I am still a sucker for tiny restaurants on mostly residential blocks. I can still remember when I first discovered Chez Michallet (now The Little Owl) on Bedford street—I am convinced that it was the location and not the food that made it one of my favorite places.
The interior of Lucali’s is just as charming as the outside, and quite unique with a completely open kitchen. It felt like we were eating in a home kitchen—you can literally see everything - from the kneading of the dough to the washing of the dishes. The menu features calzones ($10) and of course, pizza ($19). The service was very friendly and efficient, and even though there were people waiting for our table, they let us finish our bottle of wine.
My normal pizza-eating practice is to gobble down as much as I can, as fast as I can—I think it’s the magical combination of the crust, cheese, and sauce that makes me throw my savoring techniques out the window. But for some reason, at Lucali’s, I took a good hour and a half to go through my half of the pizza. The pizza came out about ten minutes after we ordered it – isn’t it lovely?

The crust was a little floppy on our first visit, but on the second visit it was chewy, and still soft—with just the right amount of give. I am always a sucker for a wonderful tomato sauce and Mark Lacono has perfected a slightly sweet, fresh, balanced wonder of a sauce. The cheese is also great, with just the right amount of salt. Nothing upsets me more than having to salt a pizza, as I did at Totonno’s on our most recent visit. What was most surprising about the first pizza was that it was absolutely covered in basil (complementary, but you need to request it). While this was delightful for us, you might want to forgo the basil if you are not crazy about it. We tried both the pepperoni and the portabello mushrooms as toppings. I had some qualms about portabellos being too meaty and cumbersome as a pizza topping, but Lacano sliced them paper thin so that they hit just the right note. We also tried the calzone on one of our visits and it was utterly delicious. I had misgivings about ordering a calzone—the idea of a thick doughy stuffed calzone always seems to pale in comparison to the lure of a light balanced pizza. The calzone was not too thick and had a great char on the crust—the insides were bursting with creamy ricotta and mozzarella, along with pepperoni, mushrooms, and garlic. I would recommend ordering the small calzone as a starter if you just have 2-3 people, and the large for 4 or more people.

One of my only complaints was the lack of anything green on the menu—I think a simple mixed arugula salad would be a lovely counterpoint to all of the bread and cheese. But if this is my only complaint, I must be in the passionate throes of a new relationship with Lucali’s.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Bun Soho

143 Grand Street, near Lafayette St

Last Friday night, the clich├ęd expression “don’t believe everything you read” took on a new importance for me. All week long I had coveted the online menu for a new Vietnamese small-plates restaurant named Bun Soho — in fact, this was the most excited I had been by a menu in quite awhile. I often find that places seem to be doing variations of the same dishes (i.e. stuffed meatballs, black cod with miso, fish wrapped in pork, heirlooms salads depending on season, etc.) This is not to say that I don’t enjoy these dishes, but rather than I have been yearning for something out of the box — a menu that might inspire me to go down to Chinatown on a rainy evening for example. I had sent the innovative menu to my friend Jeena, and after much talk about the pig brain ravoli, I was able to reel her in to going there for dinner last week.

New York Magazine, amongst others, had mentioned that Bun opened on October 22nd. After getting soaking wet on our walk from the subway, we walked into the restaurant to find the manager sitting at one of the tables. He told us that they would not actually be open until the following Thursday, November 1st. After learning that we had traveled a great distance in inclement weather (ok, we actually came from the west village), the manager offered us a glass of wine. My boyfriend joined us a few minutes later and was also poured a glass. We were already amazed by the welcome we were receiving when the chef himself came out with a plate of delicious wild boar blood sausages, which were served with a ginger apple puree and pomegranate syrup. We were overwhelmed by their hospitality, and if that weren’t enough, chef Michael Bao Huynh stayed to chat with us for the better part of an hour about his career and his new place.

Huynh, the son of an architect and restaurateur, is also known as "The Architect Chef" for his attention to the design of each of his restaurants. He is the chef/partner of Mai House in Tribeca as well as Bun. The restaurant’s design is both sleek and inviting, and includes a standing section at the bar where the guests can watch his wife Thao Nguyen make rice noodle dishes or the “bun” portion of the menu. Huynh will attend to the innovative Vietnamese tapas closer to the main bar. When pressed to reveal his favorite dishes, Huynh mentioned the Mind of Pork Ravoli with golden chives, bottarga, and lemongrass prawn coral sauce ($10) and the Nem of Duck and foie gras with pineapple relish, lettuce wrap, anchovy sauce ($12). With an exciting menu and such a warm welcome, I am bound to return soon.

We are off to Rome-- I am sure to post about this when I return!