March 19 to March 26, 2012 It was all-Italian all-the-time last week with three indelible meals. So here’s an homage to pizza, to pizzazz, to posterity, and to the maestri behind the magic: Antonio, two Frankies, and Pepe.
Last summer in Naples, we forked out a fistful of Euros to a clueless cab driver while searching for the legendary pizzeria named “Starita” in the twisty-curvy district of Mater Dei. Of course it was closed. But a version of it recently opened on Manhattan’s easy-to-locate West 50th Street, and there he was, Don Antonio Starita himself, overseeing the grand parade of pizzas in and out of his wood burning oven and, oh, yes, his deep fat fryer. I’ll come back to the fried stuff in a moment.
Antonio has partnered with a former student who also runs the pizzeria Keste in New York and the new place is called “Don Antonio by Starita.” We were a party of six celebrating dear friend Arthur Schwartz’s birthday, and I can tell you that every dish was its own celebration. We began with a huge platter of angioletti, which are fried puffy strips of dough topped with marinated cherry tomatoes and arugula, and then onto pizzas chosen by Antonio and not necessarily on the menu.
We went nuts over a two-layer affair stuffed with a mix of sautéed escarole, pine nuts, raisins and ricotta, then topped with wafer-thin dough and fresh mozzarella. For dessert there was a pizza slathered with ricotta, honey and almonds.
But in between these pies came Starita’s justly famous fried pizza – called montanara -- invented there about ten years ago where it simply is called pizza fritte. They drop a round of pizza into hot palm oil and it puffs up into an amazingly light disc (light as in texture; caloric like the dickens), which they top with an intense tomato sauce and imported smoked mozzarella di bufala, and slide it into their oven for finishing. You’re looking at a trend here, mark my words.
We all rolled home to sleep off dinner because there was another the following night, celebrating another friend’s birthday…Erica Marcus, former honcho cookbook editor and now ace food reporter for Newsday. That feast took place at Frankies (no apostrophe – there are two guys named Frank) in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens. We sat at two long tables in a romantically refitted old stable behind the restaurant and took our food from huge platters of antipasti; crostini of chicken liver mousse, delectable eggplant caponata, split fresh sardines en saor, followed by platters of homemade cavetelli and hot sausage in brown butter; of ethereal meatballs with pine nuts and raisins; and robust braciola marinara -- all washed down with an infinity of excellent Barbera.
My husband especially liked Frankies’s opening aperitif, made with gin, Cointreau and lemon juice topped off with prosecco. He reminded me the following morning precisely how many he’d had as we got into the car for a two-hour drive to Yale where our daughter will be attending a high school summer program. I knew he was worse for wear when he popped a couple of Tums on I-95, which he blamed merely on two days of feasting.
Now Yale is in New Haven, and you don’t drive there without stopping either at Sally’s or Pepe’s, both of which are the town’s equivalent of Starita, both of which bake a thin-and-crispy crust in coal-fired ovens. Yale could wait because we had just enough time for a pepperoni pie (pretty good) and for New Haven’s gastro-gift to the world – the white clam pie, which we had at Pepe’s (Sally’s being closed for lunch). This is a fairly affable assemblage of chunks of chewy clams, a sprinkling of cheese, some oregano, copious dousings of olive oil and enough garlic to eradicate all the witches in Transylvania. It was an ultimate umami assault on our tastebuds, and while some folk make pilgrimages for the white clam pie, I think it is OK just to make it a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Tonight we’re having broccoli.