If you get a group of cooks together, they are definitely going to spend most of their time talking about food. Inevitably, topics such as “where’s your favorite x,y, or z” lead to fun food field trips. My most recent one was a pizza discussion, which lead to an excursion. Being from Southern California, I grew up eating Little Caesars (my mom would treat me and my sisters to a greasy pizza pie after a long week of gymnastic practices), or I’d punch enough holes in my library card for summer reading and earn myself a personal pie from Dominoes. My pizza experiences were bleak, to say the least, and it’s not something that ever became one of my great passions.
After moving to New York, I dabbled with slices, sampling one from the corner spot in my neighborhood (who my pastry chef Brooks Headley swears is the best…but I’ll politely refrain from commenting!) to one of the late night spots open in the East Village that slings rubbery slices to late night karaoke revelers. I’ve had mostly mediocre pies, with the occasional surprise, such as Motorino. I mourn their closing daily, as I pass the empty lot on my way to the subway, which once exhaled yeasty perfumes and charred whaffs of doughy goodness. Pizza has to be really great to get my attention; it’s not a late night snack for me, but a rare splurge.
As I’ve had these cooks talks over the past few years, trying to narrow down the cream of the pizza crop (or the majestic Margherita), Jim Lahey’s Co. is one of the recurring names that pops up. My friend Josh was in town yesterday, and we wanted to feast on vegetables, so of course we came to the conclusion that we should dine on pizza for lunch!
My very good friend Steven Levine has been the chef at Co. now for about 6 months, learning the finicky craft of working with dough. When we got to the restaurant, he stepped out of the kitchen for a bit and we caught up on life. As we chatted, a beautiful, simply unadorned pizza bianca arrived at the table. It’s always better to catch up with mouths full! Steve excused himself to go check on the kitchen and Josh noted that this plain pie is the best way to experience Lahey’s magic. I was skeptical of how delicious plain bread could be, but even before the toasty slice hit my lips, the fresh rosemary informed my nose that I was about to do something very exciting to my mouth. The bread is fluffy and light, unexpectedly so, charred in bits and places, chewy yet supple, glossed over with a fruity olive oil, and shards of sea salt add crunch and depth. I love ricotta, which is served on the side, and almost forgot to smear it on the pizza as I was so lost in pizza bianca love.
What an incredible way to start a meal.
From that high note, we carried on to try some fresh, summery salads and the pièce de résistance: Popeye pizza. Spinach pizza is perhaps the most surprisingly delicious pizza I’ve ever eaten. It is so simple, with a white sauce of Pecorino, Gruyère and Mozzarella, a touch of garlic and black pepper, and a mound of spinach. The leaves are charred and moist, with a healthy drizzle of oil to up the ante. The spinach is transformed into something so luxurious and luscious, and the verdant green pizza left me feeling no guilt after eating half the pie. There is no way you should eat at Co. without ordering this emerald gem.
Steve sent us out a pizza that unabashedly screamed ‘summer!!!!!!’ The pie was covered in grated corn, sweet tomatoes, kale and bacon (for good measure). It was sweet and unexpected (both in flavor and because we were already full from two pies!). But because the bread is so special at Co., you could really put almost anything on as a topping, and it would still impress.
After finishing our large lunch, Steve took us into the kitchen and showed us how to handle the dough. The less touching the better. The pies are stretched only a few times before being laid out on the peel and then shoved into the wood-fired oven (at 850 degrees Farenheit) to blister and bubble. We watched the dough puff quickly, and Steve pulled it out to pop some of the larger bubbles, and then shoved it off to the side so it wouldn’t burn. It probably took no longer than two minutes before we had another pie in front of us. Did it matter that we had just eaten three pies for lunch only minutes earlier? No. All three of us reached down to pull off a piece off the freshly baked dough, burned our fingers, and then continued to eat the bread, each of us exclaiming with mouths full that Jim Lahey truly is a bread master.