(photo borrowed from Serious Eats)
Trying to write about a spot that's been hyped to heaven and then backlashed back to hell until everyone sort of just got some common sense and said, "Damn good!" isn't easy. So I'm going to go for the naive approach and pretend I didn't know that Roberta's in Brooklyn, or should I say Bushwick (you see, this isn't some Williamsburg or Park Slope spot), has been praised to a degree hotter than its pizza ovens run.
So I just have to say, I want one. (Turns out there's a pop-up version in Culver City in LA for a few months, and I'm very interested. Road trip!) Sure, I got to go there with three of my favorite people, so that makes it all the more special, but I think Roberta's made us all the more special, too. And that's what we want from the best restaurants, no?
Heading in, you won't think it's special, though. As the New York Times put it, it's "bunkered behind a cinder-block facade of breathtaking ugliness," plus you enter through a door into a bitty wooden-glass vestibule covered with graffiti. It would probably scare many an old person away, and by old I mean at least 40% of me. But once inside, there's that loving hearth heat of the pizza oven, loud rock 'n' roll, communal tables, and that sense of fun you almost wrinkle your nose at, it's that palpable. Heck, amidst the easily accessible (if not particularly well-priced) bottles of available wine right behind your table is A Tribute to Grace, one of CA's best Grenaches, if far too little known. I feel very happily at home.
And while the by the bottle list is a bit dear (if very well curated), the cocktails, by the glass, and beer options all are first rate, too. I enjoy a Make It Nice, the deceptively simple name for a deceptively simple drink of gin, yellow chartreuse, and Aperol that is utter delight. We share all the food, because no one would want to miss a bit of anything, and start with charred autumn greens--no not the wreckage of the Jill Stein campaign, but tops of things you often only eat the bottoms of (that sounds sexier than I meant it to be), plus roasted new potato (the freshest of bright earth), laved in, of all things, Bearnaise. Now, as a steak eater, I'm no stranger to Bearnaise, but to have it in this context was revelatory, especially as they zipped it up with some horseradish, too (those potatoes say thanks). Lovely, simple dish.
On to the pizzas. You can have one with Brussel sprouts, so, we had to have one. I mean, Brussel sprouts out of a pizza oven? If they're best roasted, how amazing could that be? Pretty much pizza perfection, especially with caramelized onions, capers, chili, lemon, and then not just mozzarella, but this cheese called Alp Blossom--nutty and green and floral. (It's called the Nun on the Run...after Julie Andrews/Maria hightailing it across the Alps with kids in curtains? I guess.)
And then there was one of the specials, which turns out to be a regular special, as you can Google it and find internet drool--the Baby Sinclair. This is the food that will make any kale hater find love for the leafy green god. Because, again, high high, quick heat. And, of course, cheese--both Parmesan and a better than usual cheddar called Prairie Breeze from Milton, IA (they did not make this when I lived in IA or I still might be there, as I'd be too fat to leave after eating so much cheese). Garlic, maitake mushrooms (notice you never get any ingredient 101 here), Banyuls vinegar. And then Calabrian chilis, enough to ratchet up the heat in that slow but heck, yep that's sort of burning way.
But I've neglected to talk dough, and, of course, to do so with pizza is like to skip talking about "oh, my! how the hell did this happen?" with our president elect who lost the popular vote by 2.5 million. Roberta's dough turned me into Colin Clive mighty fast. Elastic and lovely and salt and chew all in thin you'd think couldn't hold anything. It rivals what Nancy Silverton has come up with at Pizzeria Mozza on this coast--I'd love ot have a just out of the oven taste-off of both (and the winner is?! ME!).
I also want to give a shout out to the beer we shared a pitcher of, because, c'mon, pizza! Kings County Brewers Collective, housed mere blocks away from Roberta's in Bushwick (historically once a huge brewing center for the US, actually), based on its Robot Fish No. 2 IPA, is doing some amazing things. The beer could fall into CA's beloved Alpine's roster easily, managing to be not huge (6.1% ABV) yet full of flavor, resiny and citrusy and happy to be had with some delicious melted cheeses.
The fine beer had nothing to do with my appreciation of our server Marcus, who had the tough job of hearing us over the big booming soundtrack of the place, while not being able to be on both sides of our long picnicky table at once. He never missed an order, explained wonderfully well, was there just when you needed him. So while this might be a sort of heart of hipsterdom, there's no attitude. Plus we had the amazing luck to get right in when we showed up, but it was a Monday evening, so that probably didn't hurt. Sorry to all of you who have ever waited here, but if you finally got in, I can't imagine you were the least bit cranky upon leaving.