Reputations are funny things. They can take a while to build up and can leave just as quickly. And then there are the reputations of those eateries lucky enough to achieve ‘icon’ status, and get a rep that never wants to leave, like a bad dinner guest, even well past the expiration date. Year after year, tourist guides, magazine articles and word-of-mouth keep espousing their greatness, even if the kitchen has gotten lazy, the proprietor greedy, the service wheezy and the decor less kitsch than kitsch-gusting.
There are examples everywhere. In Sydney, Doyles at Watsons Bay has a seafood legacy that won’t die, despite the fact that it is overpriced and underwhelming. In New Orleans, there are many a French Quarter institution worth avoiding in favour of better restaurants elsewhere. In Moscow, I once spent a fortune at the famed Café Pushkin that would have been better served paying for a year’s supply of xia long bao back home.
New York’s Grimaldi’s Pizza – that legendary coal-oven pizzeria under the Brooklyn Bridge – has a better reputation than those prior mentioned. But its pizza lore among those in the know, including insider sites like eGullet and Slice, has been sullied and word on the street is that Grimaldi’s is not what it used to be. And neither are most of the other ‘iconic’ pizzerias of New York, including Patsy’s, John’s and Tottono’s. Just some years ago Jeffrey Steingarten was talking about his disillusionment with New York pizza, and today all the talk is about the new breed of pizza makers: Lucali, Motorino, Keste.
I mention all of this because yesterday I took some visiting friends on a bicycle tour of New York, and we wound up at the fantastic Brooklyn Flea – one of the city’s best outdoor markets, found directly under the Brooklyn Bridge each Sunday. We were peckish from all of the riding, so after lots of vintage clothes ogling, we headed around the corner for Grimaldi’s. There we discovered people cueing down and around the block, so we hatched a plan to grab takeaway pizzas by the East River. But that plan was dashed by a sign at Grimaldi’s door told us that the line for takeout and slices was the same as that of the sit-down crowd.
Discouraged, I suggested we return to the markets for a mobile pizza vendor that I noticed, where the pizza didn’t look half bad and they were using fresh mozzarella. And what I discovered was Pizza Moto and its terrific, wood-fired artisan pizzas. The small operation resided on the back left corner of the flea market and had a still-popular, but more modest line of customers. In the back, a wood-fired oven burned with whole logs, as the pizza-maker turned out just a handful of pies at a time. Each was a size of a vinyl record, and there were two options: a margherita or a white pizza made with garlic, ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan (“parma”). Pepperoni was also available for an extra $2.
Three of us shared two margherita pizzas, and they came out wonderfully crisped and charred, and were drizzled with olive oil (out of a not-exactly-romantic squirt bottle), given a pinch of sea salt and a spooned with grated parmesan just before being served. The tomato sauce had a bright acidic tang from San Marzano tomatoes, while four dollops of bright white fresh mozzarella were topped by a scattering of fresh basil leaves. For anyone who loves pizza at its purist best, it was a textbook production. Sarah said it was the best pizza she had eaten in New York. I’d certainly put it in my top 10, and for location, it’s hard to beat. We didn’t have much time, so we scoffed down our slices at the sunny picnic tables within the Brooklyn Flea’s food area. If given the time, though, I would have exited the gates, grabbed a nearby seat along the river and watched the ships slink by the south Manhattan skyline and under the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges.
It wasn’t until I did my mandatory Google search this morning that I discovered that Pizza Moto has been gathering a local following among flea marketeers. The Village Voice even cited it among its top pizza places in the city, and Serious Eats’ Slice rated it higher than the more hyped locals, Ignazio’s and, especially on an off day, Grimaldi’s. It turns out it is the side project of Dave Sclarow, who learned pizza making while backpacking through Italy and also at Franny’s in Brooklyn. His full-time gig? Working as the chef de cuisine at a slow-food Italian/Med restaurant called Lunetta in Brooklyn.
And the pizza? Well, the Pizza Moto website says that it’s a sourdough starter derived from wild yeasts extract found on local apples. The flour is ’00’ dopio-zero (natch), the mozzarella from Aeillo’s of Brooklyn, and the parma is Grana Padano. Yep, great ingredients and an 800-degree oven sound like the start of a beautiful friendship. And while pizzerias world-wide have been spouting the need for Italian buffalo mozzarella, the Moto pizza and places like Fiore’s of Hoboken that turn out amazing cow’s milk mozzarella are having me think otherwise.
Sclarow, as it happens, built Moto’s pizza oven himself, and set it all atop a boat trailer for easy transport. The original ovens were brick, but they weren’t durable enough for the road, so Sclarow replaced them with a half-moon, double-hulled steel oven, which is what I found at the Brooklyn Flea. And while not all foods travel well, pizza ovens are often made for being outside, so why shouldn’t an outdoor, mobile wood oven be as good as any of its indoor competitors?
Moto has one of those reputations that are building over time. So do yourself a favour – ride a bike over the Brooklyn Bridge, check out the mirrors made out of salvaged tin ceilings at the Brooklyn Flea, and grab a delish pizza at Moto (which also produces pizzas at the original Brooklyn Flea on Saturdays in Fort Greene). Keep your reputations fresh, and you’ll get the kind of fresh, beautiful food you deserve, rather than spending your disposable time in line and paying big bucks to taste food that merely imitates the greatness of a bygone era.