On the Hipster Frontier
A few months back, we visited Pizza Brain (full review HERE) in Philly's Fishtown section. Fishtown is an old working-class neighborhood with moderate urban blight, rapidly transforming into a hipster destination for young people with pea coats and scarves, beards and scooters, skinny jeans, tats, and knit caps. The neighborhood still looked a tad rough and unfinished to my suburban eye, but the energy and buzz were palpable there.
|Margherita pie. Click any pic to see full size resolution|
Roberta's in Bushwick is another cutting-edge eatery in a transitional neighborhood. Bushwick is benefiting from the rising property values in trendy Williamsburg, its western border. People priced out of Park Slope and Willliamsburg are finding relative value in Bushwick. There's plenty of troublesome history with high crime rates, but Bushwick is making the turn. Much of it remains industrial ugly; it makes Philly's Fishtown look like Rittenhouse Square by comparison.
|Roberta's, 261 Moore Street|
Roberta's opened in 2009 in a cinder block garage, and its exterior does nothing to remake its former purpose. It's an ugly building on an ugly street - but on the day of my visit, two artists were working on a large mural just a few doors down.
|Scooters; gotta be hipsters nearby!|
Despite the foreboding exterior, there was a swarm of hipsters and foodies descended upon Roberta's at lunch time on a warm December Sunday. Folks were waiting for tables, but as a solo diner I was able to grab a spot at the small bar in the rear, which features a full menu.
|Interior, view from the front door|
The interior, abuzz with bustling waitresses and happy groups of diners, was warm, cozy, inviting. Plenty of that hipster vibe, but welcoming to all types. There was (on this sunny day) a good mix of natural and artificial lighting falling on the rough wood community tables, exposed rafters, and painted white cinder block walls.
There is also a large outside patio/garden dining area, which would have been a great spot for this unseasonably warm Sunday.
|Bar is in the back (photo from robertaspizza.com)|
|View from the bar, looking toward the front dining room|
The chalkboard at the bar offered about a half dozen craft beers on tap, good wines, and intriguing cocktails. I choose a pint of lager for $6, and it was served in a fat jelly jar glass.
|My margherita pizza with pork sausage|
Roberta's has a reputation for inventive food beyond the pizza, but this lunch visit was all about the pie. I chose a margherita pie ($12 - large personal size) and added pork sausage topping for $3 more. I was very tempted by some of the other inventive options, especially speck, my favorite kind of prosciutto.
The base pizzas here are Neapolitan, with a soft puffy crust and fresh (house-made) mozzarella.The pie arrived swiftly, and looked to be cooked to near perfection. Excellent leopard char spots, and even some browning on the cheese.
Because Neapolitan pies are typically cooked briefly (2 minutes) at very high heat, the cheese and sauce do not yield much of their moisture and then meld to the crust as you might find in the best old-school American pies at places like Totonno's in Coney Island or Sally's Apizza in New Haven. Hence, the pies are pretty "wet" on top and the challenge for a Neapolitan pizzaiolo is to prevent that moisture from seeping into the crust and making it soggy.
|Ideal char under the hood|
For the most part, this pie succeeded on that measure. I did need to eat the first bite of each slice with a knife and fork, but the sauce and cheese were applied judiciously. After that, I could pick up and eat the remainder with only a slight crease to improve handling.
|Chili flakes and chili oil|
The crust was thin in the center and puffy at the edges, tender, al dente chewy, and best of all - flavorful on its own. Surely one of the best Neapolitan crusts I've found - perhaps behind Pane Bianco in Phoenix, but memorable and remarkable. Others describe it as salty, in a good way, and I concur.
The sauce was thin and merely a role player. Roberta's uses drained San Marzano tomatoes, and like the pizzaioli of Trenton tomato pies (and my own home method), does not cook the tomatoes before assembling the pie. I'm not sure why this sauce was unremarkable, other than a guess that the short oven time does not permit the sauce to cook down and concentrate the tomato flavors.
|Moore Street, home to Roberta's|
New York Magazine reported a similar reaction to the sauce:
Can two hip musicians versed in punky blues rock find fulfillment as artisanal pizza-makers in Bushwick? Owned by Chris Parachini (on bass) and Brandon Hoy (on keyboards), the pizzeria is in a forlorn part of Brooklyn filled with gritty factories, warehouses, and lofts. The restaurant, housed in a former garage, has wood-paneled walls, elongated wood tables, and mismatched captain’s chairs. Out back is a patio with additional seating and a rusting Mercedes-Benz sedan studded with flowerpots. The pizza, made in a wood-burning oven, is Neapolitan in inspiration and technique. The crusts are admirably airy and crispy, and the mozzarella homemade—but the tomato sauce could be richer and more assertive. There are nearly two dozen toppings, with unusual choices like taleggio cheese, capers, and speck.
The cheese was wonderful - and I generally prefer the less delicate flavor of traditional aged mozzarella. There was a saltiness, and it worked well the pork sausage. The sausage was good, not "wow" and left me thinking again that the speck might have been a better choice.
|A block or two away - urban renewal|
The bartender - friendly and attentive - brought me a shaker of chili pepper flakes and a bottle of chili oil with the pie. I used the oil for dipping the cornicione, and it was a delightful touch for anyone who enjoys that spicy punch.
The crust here earns a 9.5, the cheese a 9, the sauce a 6, the sausage a 6. Ambiance 9, service 10. Overall, this was a 9 pizza experience and clearly destination pie. Roberta's has devoted fans and a lot of critics too; put your trust in the fans. This place deserves the buzz. I'd return often - for the pies and the rest of the menu - if I lived nearby.