eater's digest: co. pane

Living in New York City, I am pretty shocked when people tell me they have one "favorite" restaurant or eat at the same place every week. Inundated with a constant stream of new openings and enthusiastic recommendations, I doubt I'll ever be able to reach the end of my edible NYC to-do list. And yet. Sometimes you discover a restaurant that crawls under your skin. It starts with the complementary contrast of innovative comfort food or elevated peasant cuisine - something that will never leave you bored but still satisfies your most primal, childlike cravings. It sneaks up on you, and then suddenly, a few days or weeks later, you are salivating, dying to return, just to have a bite of that one specific dish.

My voracious curiosity for all-things-edible has made me more or less impervious to this condition. I can count the number of Manhattan restaurants I've been to more than twice (writer's research aside) on one hand. And I certainly wasn't expecting a pizza joint to win me over. (My family is Italian and I grew up right outside New Haven, CT - home to the infamous Pepe's clam pizza. Combined with a few recent trips to Italy, it's safe to call me a pizza snob.)

My first visit to Co. was on a date with a chef. He told me it was not only his favorite pizza place, but one of his top restaurants in general. Relieved he hadn't pointed me in the direction of the oft-praised John's pizza, and intrigued by owner Jim Lahey's Sullivan Street Bakery connection, I went along with a more-or-less open mind.

The first thing that won me over was the space. Clean lines, warm woods, and a low-key, hip-but-not-trendy vibe. The staff wasn't stressed, the patrons weren't high maintenance, and everything moved at a distinctly un-NYC pace.

The first thing I tasted at Co. was the radicchio salad with taleggio cheese and shiitake mushrooms. A sucker for anything bitter, this has quickly become one of my favorite salads in the city. On a more recent visit (my fourth, and the first time I've returned to intentionally review the place), I sampled the yellow salad special - summer squash served mild to the point of being almost underdressed, and sprinkled with crunchy peanuts. It was one of the few yellow squash dishes I've ever had that let the vegetable just be. Another addictive standard is the tender, poached artichoke salad with just-salty-enough capers and shavings of parmesan cheese.

As for the pies - the crust is nearly perfect. Thin as you could ever want it, without turning into a droopy mess. Crispy, bubbled, yet still doughy and al dente. Only a Chicago deep-dish craver or shameless Domino's devotee could do anything but rave.

But what is best about Lahey's pies is not just the crust - but also his versatile and uniformly delicious toppings. Many places (see: the aforementioned Pepe's) have one must-have pie. Lahey has several, and keeps 'em coming with new seasonal specials. On the top of my list?

  • the Popeye - a blackened spinach pie with pecorino, gruyère, mozzarella, black pepper & garlic. The crunchy, fire-blasted spinach evokes all that is great about grilling, while the cheese balances the char.
  • Mushroom & Jalapeño Pie - spice, umami and cheese collide in jalapeño, seasonal mushrooms, béchamel, pecorino, gruyère, garlic confit, and fresh dill. I thought I would find the béchamel too rich - but the mix of creamy, funky and hot is an addictive winner, every time.
  • The summer special, Corn Pie - a carb-y pie that I much prefer to the now-ubiquitous potato. Corn puree, mozzarella, parmesan, sungold tomatoes, kale, basil, Aleppo pepper and garlic. The bursts of bright tomato coupled with herbaceous greens and sweet, creamy corn hit on all flavor cylinders. It's worth racing over to Co. before summer's end to see if they'll serve it again.

I can't speak to the wine or beer list at Co., which has become only a vague (but positive) memory. I'm hooked on their alcohol-free artisanal sodas - which change regularly. If they have it, the blood orange is better than incredible.

Maybe there's something about pizza that inspires unconventional loyalty. Or maybe Co. is just that damn good. Either way, I'm happy to have found a spot worth a regular re-run - whether I'm craving the classics or scoping out the seasonal specials.

Co Pane 230 9th Avenue (212) 243-1105

ordinary pleasures: sunday feast

As Spring approaches and the sun shines a bit brighter, my thoughts often turn to vibrant memories of markets and preparations for elaborate feasts - in short, my eternal Parisian Sundays. Each weekend, I would wake early to shop at Place d'Aligre - inventing dishes on the fly, experimenting with new ingredients. Whether it was pancakes (by request), a pork roast or an indoor picnic, each and every Sunday was "family" dinner for twelve.

Since joining the full-time workforce in NYC, my Spring Sunday routine has become simpler - typically beginning and ending with a long bike ride, in which the market is only one of several points of interest. If food is purchased, it's just a few interesting ingredients for the week, moreso than preparations for a celebratory weekend feast.

But on rare occasions - for a holiday or an out-of-the-ordinary reunion - I return to my elaborate Sunday kitchen. The weekends that I escape to my parents' home in Connecticut, these culinary impulses are at their peak, inspired by spacious counter-tops and cupboards (filled with tools for which I lack space in my meager Upper West Side studio).

This Easter was no exception. We spent Saturday afternoon preparing a home-made batch of puff pastry. On Sunday, that pastry was adorned with gruyere, creme fraiche, bacon and eggs - a spectacular and indulgent Easter Sunday brunch.

My sister and I went for a spin before eating, as per our NYC custom. As the sunlight gleamed through the tall seaside grasses, we squinted, rounding the corner for home. Just then, our uncle arrived in a family heirloom - grandfather's 1969 jaguar convertible - the cherry on top of our Sunday CT nostalgia.

eating your words: "sissy pizza"

“Is pizza a vegetable?”  The fact that anyone thought to ask this question is perhaps the most ridiculous food news in recent American history.  Even if tomato paste does have some nutritional value, the fact that anyone actually voted in favor of the "pizza as a vegetable" ruling is inconceivable.

But while the sane sit shaking their heads over this international PR gaffe (Um, can someone please start taking our country’s reputation abroad seriously?) – Herman Cain is out adding insult to injury, over a nice hot slice with GQ.

Now I understand Cain’s appeal.  Our lack of faith in politicians and the whole politic system has reached an unprecedented low, so we figure they might as well entertain us.  In fact, he’s given me something to write about today, so I guess I should be thanking him.

But “good stories” aside, no intelligent person can take Cain seriously.  Which is perhaps why he can say offensive things without anyone batting an eye.

I’m talking about “sissy pizza”:

Chris Heath: What can you tell about a man by the type of pizza that he likes?
Herman Cain: [repeats the question aloud, then pauses for a long moment] The more toppings a man has on his pizza, I believe the more manly he is.
Chris Heath: Why is that?
Herman Cain: Because the more manly man is not afraid of abundance. [laughs]
Devin Gordon: Is that purely a meat question?
Herman Cain: A manly man don't want it piled high with vegetables! He would call that a sissy pizza.

First of all, what adult professional uses the word “sissy”?  And are we really giving airtime to a man who believes that your “masculinity” is defined by pizza toppings?  Because the last time I checked, that extra-pepperoni is going to turn you into more of a dough-boy than an wood-chopping, game-killing Adonis.

But let me be clear – this isn’t a question of health.  This is about a public figure reinforcing a backwards – and, unfortunately, pervasive and widely accepted – message about masculinity in America.

In an age where Mario Batali (a public figure, yes, but not someone running for president) gets blasted for a well-intentioned, but poorly-chosen statement about the current financial system (“Hitler” just does not work as a casual, pop culture reference) – why are we not raising more of a stink over Cain’s macho pizza theory?  I mean, at this point, I’d rather elect someone who forgets the name of a government department than someone who is just downright narrow-minded.

Even worse, unlike Batali’s flub-up, Cain proudly returns to the “manly pizza” motif throughout the interview.  And though he does have a few redeemable moments where he references “taste” and the “quality of ingredients”, Cain’s outright celebration of his lack of qualifications for public office pretty much sums it up:

Chris Heath: What are they trying to put in people's minds when they call you the pizza guy?
Herman Cain: That I haven't had experience holding an elected office. That's how they're trying to paint me. And guess what, I give them the brush and the paint. Want to know why? The American people love the fact that I haven't held an elected office. They love it— [Another pie arrives, covered with meat.] NOW THAT'S A MANLY-LOOKING PIZZA!!

In an ironic twist of fate, it’s actually the arugula pizza that Cain prefers.  Perhaps his tongue should stick to eating and stop the talking.

Cheers to Chris Heath for turning a simple pizza story into a truly revealing interview.

11.28.11 - Update : Herman Cain's "sissy pizza" comment is only the tip of the food/gender issues iceberg.  Men's Health publishes a list of the Manliest Restaurants in America (note that none of them are "healthy").