Roberta’s Pizza – Part 1: Dinner

Chef/Owner Carlo Mirarchi

One can’t be all things to all people, but can one be many things to many people?  Usually, when someone tries to do just that, it comes out as not much of anything to anyone. However, in very rare instances, whether intentionally or not, an entity comes along that is meaningful to many different people. Just such an entity is Roberta’s Pizza in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn.

Coming up to the restaurant, a converted garage, some might wonder if they have come to the right place. The gray cinder blocks that make up the entry are flecked with graffiti and the door is flanked by a rather shady looking ATM machine. It looks more like  one of those private social clubs that have lined the back streets of Brooklyn since forever providing refuge for types unsavory, but then there is the hand-painted simple sign above the door with it’s peeling paint that announces, “Roberta’s.” Passing by without some sense of what is within would generally mean not giving it a second thought, but this is part of Roberta’s charm.

Once through the door, one enters a place that belies its exterior. By no means opulent or luxurious, it is indubitably full of people and hopping. The room is not well lit, but it is well populated and loud from both patrons and music. On the near end of the restaurant by the entrance, there is the pizza oven with the pizzaioli churning out beautifully charred and inviting pies one after another to feed the hip, young urban crowd that has filled the place. On the far end, in the right hand corner as one looks from the entrance, is the main kitchen, where Chef Carlo Mirarchi plies his trade and makes food that draws cognoscenti visiting NYC from all over the world.

Mirarchi’s kitchen is not a large one, but it is one that hums with activity from Mirarchi and his small team of cooks. It is from this kitchen that the possibilities of meaning for many different people are largely expanded. The pizzas and calzones cover many of the bases. They are well done with quality ingredients and both traditional and novel topping combinations and stuffings. Then there are the traditional salumi, all of top quality. Those interested in an inexpensive and informal, but still top quality meal can certainly find it here and many do. I would estimate that at least half of the volume of Roberta’s business, maybe more, comes from the front pizza ovens. There is no doubt that Roberta’s would be an extremely successful and well known restaurant even if all it did was pizza, calzones and some hearty traditional fare a la Franny’s. But Roberta’s Pizza is about much more than just pizza and good Italian influenced food.

There is a kitchen menu, that offers a number of delights that go well beyond the offerings from the front ovens as wonderful as they are. It is from the back kitchen, Carlo’s kitchen, that the real wonders come: the offal and the aged meats, the pastas and the seafood of the highest order, often inflected with a Japanese influence. One can and many do quite well just ordering off the regular kitchen menu at Roberta’s.

But the experience of Roberta’s can be taken even further. The magic, the real magic that truly makes Roberta’s a restaurant that attracts people from around the world is when Chef Mirarchi creates a special tasting menu, pulling from the kitchen menu as well as other assorted delights. This is not something that is easy to come by, though. Truly great things rarely are.  Arrangements need to be made in advance and then, at that, the opportunities are quite limited. Mirarchi doesn’t do this for more than one four-top table in an evening and it is not every evening. To top it off, the dinner must commence at 5:30PM. This is not a frivolous requirement.  The scope and nature of the restaurant and the character of the chef, who wants to make sure that his epic meal is done precisely to his vision and specifications, makes this necessary. It is at this time that he is able to fully devote himself to cooking a meal that is truly special – a meal that transcends time and place. Roberta’s is not an haute cuisine restaurant with comfortable, enveloping chairs or collector’s china, though the food served by Mirarchi and his team for the tasting menu is of a caliber that would be served with pride anywhere.

This past December I had the opportunity to partake of one of these epic meals with my wife and a couple of friends. The meal started simply. Mirarchi served a single oyster from East Dennis on Cape Cod to each diner. The oyster was accompanied by a refreshing lemon granita. The ante was elevated a bit further with the next offering. Tiny glass shrimp were mixed with yuzu, poppy seed and celery. This was not just another Italian restaurant. The self-educated chef fused other cultures with sea urchin using finger lime, olive oil and bread crumbs. Once again, I found the wonderful ingredient, finger lime, popping up and popping out in my mouth. Osetra caviar with stracciatella, gooseberry and pistachio stretched the boundaries even further. It quickly became apparent that Mirarchi was no one trick pony. He is clearly adept with seafood and with pairing it with a variety of flavors and ingredients from a variety of cultures. These were delicious and satisfying plates. An offering of cuttlefish with oxtail and celery heart was as delicious as it was non-intuitive.

Roberta’s has a liquor license and a reasonable wine list, but for these tasting dinners one is encouraged to bring a bottle or two of wine with the caveat that additional wine be purchased from the restaurant, a bottle purchased for every bottle brought and consumed. We brought a bottle of  2004 “Y” from Chateau d’Yquem, the dry white Bordeaux from the house more well known for its legendary Sauternes. The rest of the wines, while not as notable as the “Y” were reasonably priced and well matched for the food.

There are few things I like more than a good pasta dish, but it is not easy to find a truly great one. Mirarchi’s Trofie with squab and white truffle was simply off the charts. In a year of great pasta dishes, this one was the most memorable and delicious of them all. Prepared in a Bolognese style with Mirarchi’s own aged squab and supplemented with generous shavings of fresh white Alba truffle, this was luxurious in every respect. While the surroundings, as unassuming and comfortable as they were, were in no way “luxurious”, this dish was enough in and of itself to transport one’s mind and spirit to the heights of luxury.

The meal continued with a return to seafood. This time, fish. The black bass with razor clams, swiss chard and matsutake showed finesse to go with superb product. Foie gras with olive caramel, black pepper and fig showed imagination in an area in which it is difficult to find something novel and delicious. Venison with chestnut, chanterelle and salsify was beautiful and totally of the season. The venison was a uniform red throughout – rare, but not raw. Mangalitsa, the star pig of the moment and likely for some time, showed up with beets, purple cippolini and romanesco. Mirarchi’s mastery of meat continued with an astoundingly delicious cote de boeuf with sweetbreads, fingerlings, spigarello and white truffle.

Much of the produce used at the restaurant is grown at the restaurant in gardens on the roof as well as in the backyard. While the meats are not raised there, they are impeccably sourced and aged at Roberta’s under Mirarchi’s watchful eye. I got to see, but not taste some of my favorite birds – geese – from Washington County’s Elihu Farm, hanging and aging in a meat locker. I did get to taste another of my favorite birds, though. Chef Mirarchi brought out a whole roasted Normandy duck, which he then brought back to the kitchen to carve and serve along with treviso, persimmon and more white truffle which had been left on the table along with a shaver.

A cheese course featuring a blu di bufala from Lombardy led into the wonderfully adult desserts of Pamela Yung, then the pastry chef at Roberta’s. Her sunchoke panna cotta with sunflower, chestnut and pralinée and her warm chocolate mousse with coffee cream and vin cotto were delightful. Her combinations of sweet and savory were spot on, feeding a palate that would otherwise have been too full to eat another bite.

The meal came to a close and it was time to settle up the bill, which was not inconsiderable given the quality of the ingredients and the number of plates served. One thing I had not previously been aware of was that, at least at that time, Roberta’s was a cash only restaurant. While the policy may have changed since the last time I was there, I quickly realized the method behind the madness of that shady ATM standing forlornly next to the entrance of the restaurant. It did come in handy!

The setting of the restaurant couldn’t be more casual. The bulk of the food served and eaten there goes right along with that aesthetic. If Roberta’s was near where I lived I would be there frequently, just for the more casual fare. Despite it’s setting and alter ego, Roberta’s is also one of the absolute finest restaurants for fine dining not only in Brooklyn or NYC, but based upon the quality of the raw materials and the execution and concepts with which they are used, certainly one of the finest in the country and certainly of a world class caliber. It is no wonder that so many visiting chefs and culinary dignitaries have made their way to this unusual little spot that would be easy to miss if it weren’t so darn good!

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