I grew up with NY pizza and have always been a fan, not just of one style, but of many. I grew to adore la vera pizza Napolitana over several visits to that beautiful Italian city. I love a good crust, good tomato sauce and good cheese above all, but less traditional pizzas also beguile me, especially if done well. Pepe's clam pizzas in New Haven, CT. certainly fit that mold. With artisanal pizza undergoing a bit of a renaissance in NYC of late, I had to try a few while I was there. Though there were others I would have liked to try like Motorino, I was only able to get to three – Jim Lahey's Co., The Grandaisy and Keste.
While Keste and Co. are related stylistically, Co. and The Grandaisy are related through business and history as the owner of Co., Jim Lahey and the owner of The Grandaisy, Monica Von Thun Calderón, were once business partners in The Sullivan Street Bakery. When their partnership split, Lahey retained the Sullivan St. Bakery name, moving to W.47th St. and Von Thun Calderón kept the original bakery re-naming it in honor of her grandmother. Both retained the recipes and still produce similar products including Roman style pizzas.
Co. (pronounced "Company") was the first of the three that I visited along with my friend, Joe. We arrived late in the lunch service. The restaurant was moderately busy, but with plenty of tables available, we sat right down. The pizza oven is visible through a window, but only if one goes up to it. Once there, one can witness the baking action unfold. We ordered a couple of salads to start, including an Artichoke Salad and an Insalata di Bresaola. The artichoke salad was as wonderful as the Bresaola salad was mediocre. Containing a number of the same ingredients including shaved parmesan, arugula, olive oil and lemon, the artichoke salad, which also contained olive oil poached baby artichokes and capers meshed perfectly in texture and flavor creating one of the most sublime salads I have eaten in some time. The Insalata di bresaola essentially substituted bresaola for the artichokes and omitted the capers. Why it wasn't every bit as good as the artichoke salad has everything to do with balance and the fact that the bresaola just didn't work with its team the way the artichokes did. It lacked balance and finesse. However good or bad they may have been, this post really isn't about salads, so I will go no further with them.
We ordered two pizzas at Co. The first was a classic Margherita with tomato, buffalo mozzarella and basil. This was well prepared – crisp and well charred around the edges and as might be expected somewhat soft and drooping at the center. The pizza was tasty, but both Joe and I felt that it was a bit too "bready." Now if the bread happens to come from Jim Lahey, that is not necessarily a bad thing and if one really wants to concentrate on the flavor of the crust, this may very well be a favorite. Over all, though we felt that the flavor of the crust was somewhat overwhelming to the rest of the pizza.
The same could be said for the second pizza, a pizza bianca with cauliflower, chilis, bread crumbs, bechamel and a couple of different cheeses. While this pizza was supposed to have "a bite" from the chili, I didn't get any and Joe only tasted it in one bite of his. Overall the topping was surprisingly lacking in flavor and once again was dominated by the flavor of the crust.
Despite my criticisms, the pizzas at Co. are in fact, quite good. However, they are not, in my opinion, quite good enough to justify the rather substantial price tags accompanying them. They are, in fact quite small, each pizza occupying a regular sized dinner plate. The Margherita was $13 and the "special" pie was $17. The subtotal for the two of us without drinks and before tax and tip was $48. Any reader of this site will know that I don't mind spending money for good food. While this was generally good food, I'm not sure the value is really there compared to its competitors.
Keste has a reputation for being somewhat inconsistent, but I can only report on my one experience. With prices marginally less expensive than Co., Keste has a different vibe from the get go. The restaurant is long and narrow with the pizza oven open and clearly visible in the rear. One of the fun things (to me, at least) about going to a special pizzeria, is the ability to interact and watch. Roberto Caporuscio and his skilled assistants are right out there in the open for any to watch. Unlike some other pizzerias, they are also quite affable and happy to interact with their customers, including customers with cameras. Caporuscio's skills as a master pizzaiolo are perfectly evident as he shapes and manipulates his dough before putting on the toppings and placing the pizzas in the wood-fired oven. From that point his two assistants manage the pies with one handling the oven and the other finishing the pies with grated cheese, olive oil or other non-baked in toppings like arugula and prosciutto.
At Keste, we did not order anything but a couple of pizzas. Instead of a basic Margherita, we had the Regina with fresh grape tomatoes in addition to the usual Margherita triumvirate for $3 more. we also ordered another tomato based pizza, the Keste, which in addition to the buffalo mozzarella and tomato sauce, included arugula, prosciutto di parma and something called "gran cru", which I have no idea what it is. Both pizzas were superb. The crusts were well cooked, thin and did not overpower the toppings, though it was able to stand up to them. These may have been the best Neapolitan style pizzas I have had in the US.
The pizzas at The Grandaisy are altogether different from those at Co. and Keste, which at least bear a stylistic similarity. They are not, however, different than Jim Lahey's Roman style pizzas at Sullivan Street Bakery. That similarity is because the have the same provenance. Though Lahey does not make the pizzas at The Grandaisy, he developed them at Sullivan Street and still makes them there. Though I have never had them from Sullivan St., I would expect that they are very similar to their cousins at The Grandaisy. If so, they would share in their utter deliciousness. These rectangular, thin cruste pizzas are topped across their surface with a thin, but flavorful layer of topping. Both varieties that I tried, the "Funghi" or mushroom pizza and the "Cavolfiore" or cauliflower pizza, were full flavored and simply delicious with great balanced flavor to go along with textural contrasts of a crisp crust and soft toppings. While the mushroom with cremini mushrooms, onions, thyme, olive oil and sea salt was excellent, the cauliflower was extraordinary, something I could eat anywhere at any time. There are a number of other varieties, including seasonal ones, that I would love to try.
Co. and Keste are both full featured restaurants, something The Grandaisy is not. In fact, the Grandaisy, or at least the one on W. 72nd St, that I went to, tends to sell their pizzas by the slice at around $3.50/slice and is primarily designed for takeout. Hot or cold, the pizzas are delicious. Ultimately, if one concedes an equivalent 4 Grandaisy slices to a pizza from Keste or Co., the price is slightly less at The Grandaisy.
All three places make excellent pizza as well as other things. The bottom line comes down to what style one might prefer. If a good bread driven crust is one's highest priority then Co. would likely be the favorite. For a classic Neapolitan style pizza, it would be Keste. For something more unusual, cheaper and perhaps more convenient, The Grandaisy (or Sullivan St.)would be the choice. I'm happy that all of these exist and that there is a choice. I am even happier that every day there seems to be even more choices for great pizza in NYC.