900 Degrees' Pie in the Sky
In retrospect, the onrush of restaurateurs into the pizza biz was entirely predictable. We all know the reason for it: The ingredients are cheap and the mark-ups spectacular. No sooner had small and ridiculously expensive Neapolitan pies descended on Gotham a few years back, with their plainish taste and pedigreed ingredients, than Roman pizza floated in, like thin, low-carb crackers. Seeking to outflank them in healthfulness, New Age pies flaunting crusts of spelt and tofu "cheese" arrived with a dull thud, as dollar-slice places demonstrated how cheap pizza can be. There are now too many types and subtypes to accurately count.
It was also inevitable that a restaurant would try to make them all at once, yearning to create a one-stop pizza destination. Sounding more like an online university than a pizzeria, that place is 900 Degrees. The restaurant hunkers south of Sheridan Square in a doomed space that was once a Thai bistro, and before that an Indian tapas bar. With French doors propped open to catch Hudson River breezes, the dining room is wide but shallow, and a pair of ovens—one gas, one wood—rise like flaming robots behind a prep counter. 900 Degrees is an offshoot of San Francisco's Tony's Pizza Napoletana, helmed by American pizzaiolo Tony Gemignani. San Francisco telling New York how to make pizza? The end is near, my friends.
Scanning the 900 Degrees menu, you'll find 21 pies in six confusing categories—STG Pizza Napoletana (guaranteed authentic by an Italian trade group), Pizza Romana, Tomato Pies, Pizza Siciliana, Pizza Americana Wood Fired, and Pizza Americana Italian Brick Oven. Prices range from $13 to $38. Since all pies are preconfigured, with no options, ordering might be an easy task, except it's impossible to figure out the size and thickness of each pie from the menu description, or how many you'd have to order to feed, say, a table of four. Clearly, leftovers are in your future.
At the top of the menu lie three traditional Naples pies. The Margherita ($16) is fantastic, with glistening gobs of cow's-milk mozzarella, a char-stippled crust made with imported flour, and crushed canned tomatoes. It bravely wears basil leaves on its breast like medals from the Pizza Wars. Preciously, the menu claims only 73 are fired per day, with the dough proofed in a wooden box of Italian origin. My favorite pie is the Diavola ($18), in the Italian Brick Oven section. Its toppings include chili oil, piquant soppressata, and two cheeses, on what used to be regarded as a normal pizza crust. You'll work up a sweat eating it.
Pizza Siciliana offers a choice of four thicker-crusted pies, in the $23 to $29 range. These tend to be rib-sticking, but unremarkable—the crust has none of the crunch-generating greasiness you find in the Sicilian slice at, say, Krispy Pizza in Dyker Heights. Typical of these pies is the misspelled "Bleeker," topped with "hand-crushed" tomatoes. (What would one normally use, an ice pick?) The other ingredients—prosciutto, arugula, and piquilo peppers—are applied post-oven. Fine enough, though those achingly sweet Spanish pickled peppers simply don't belong on a pizza at all.
The most annoying category is Pizza Romana—humongous pies nearly a meter in length divided into three segments, each with its own arbitrary set of toppings. The thin crust by itself is wonderful, but I can guarantee you'll hate at least one of the three compulsory combinations. For example, the DiFabio ($38) offers two boffo segments: prosciutto, arugula, and Parmigiano; and garlic, meatballs, and bechamel. The third features gorgonzola, candied pecans, apples, Nutella, and honey. Blech! It lies uneaten when the rest is finished. After dining on pizza, who wants more pizza for dessert?
As for the so-called Tomato Pies—they're round, inflated with hot air, and generally agreeable. Especially the New Yorker ($18), which involves mozzarella, garlic, meatballs, ricotta, pepperoni, and Neapolitan oregano, whatever that is. As we were digging in, one of my crew noted with a twinkle in his eye that, though his slice was utterly edible, "This pie tastes like it was just delivered from Domino's." And, indeed, he was right.
There are Looney-Tunes pies on the menu, too, in the section designated Pizza Americana Wood Fired. One is the self-named 900 Degrees ($19). This belabored round of dough comes surmounted by tamarind-laced pulled pork, Mexican queso fresco, fresh cactus, concentrated agave nectar, and two types of hot peppers. It's surprisingly good, though a bit too sweet. But my problem with it is more fundamental—I don't think it ought to be categorized as pizza.
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