A Prince of a Pauper: Peasant Carries a Torch for Wood-Fired Italian Cooking
All photos by Bradley Hawks for the Village Voice
Peasant's (194 Elizabeth Street, 212-965-9511) wood-fired oven glows like a nuclear reactor. Though it's minimalist by industry standards, the hand-built fire pit's nightly output is staggering: meats roasted in terracotta; thin-crust pizzas topped bewitchingly with arugula and speck, prosciutto's lesser-known cousin that's both cured and smoked. In fact, the raging hardwood charcoal blaze coaxes smoky, broiled flavor out of nearly every dish on the lengthy menu at chef Frank DeCarlo's Nolita restaurant, which he and his wife, Dulcinea Benson, opened in 2000. A paean to old-world Italian cooking, Peasant turns fifteen this year — an eternity in New York City restaurant years — seemingly powered and protected by its own scorching furnace.
DeCarlo salvaged materials from local demolition sites and laid the bricks himself based off of designs he'd sketched in Italy, where he apprenticed for years. The various-size stones embody a charming, cobbled-together aesthetic. He has tended the furious thing every day since its first embers smoldered — no easy task for a chef approaching his sixties. The DIY contraption is an extension of the man, the hearth stoking his passion as he stokes its flames. More than a decade after opening, this remains one of the city's most impressive kitchens. One reason: Like the oven, his cooks have been with him since day one. "It's impossible to find people with wood-fire cooking experience," he says. "And if I did hire someone new, it would take me six months to train them properly."
Bearded and bandanna'd, DeCarlo presides over a semi-open kitchen whose façade of exposed whitewashed brick frames a rotisserie that spins glistening suckling pigs and baby hens. The back of this house radiates warmth, which you register immediately upon entering the spacious dining room and which persists throughout your meal, echoing the rusticity of the chef's cooking. No aspect of those roasted birds sounds a sour note, from their savory bread stuffing to the accompanying cocottes of cauliflower gratin. Thinly sliced lamb leg gets stacked over buttery polenta sitting in a puddle of jus, and astringent grilled radicchio trevisano, oblong like endive, cuts through the richness of game and grain.
The pigs, whose mortal diet consisted entirely of their mothers' milk, arrive at the table magnificently transformed: pearly white flesh capped with crisp, bronze skin and laid over fingerling potatoes simmered in milk. A recipe with deep Sardinian roots (sweet and earthy sea-urchin pasta shares a similar lineage), its flavors ring primordial. To that effect, a running special nets you the little pig's head split lengthwise, smothered in onions and shallots cooked in white wine, and baked with breadcrumbs. The presentation is medieval, the skull halves still covered in gelatinous, braised skin, with tongue, teeth, and deflated eyeballs intact. Fair warning: If there are any left when you arrive and you fail to act fast, some other diner will snag your head. If you do order one, prepare to delight in excavating a textural tapestry: creamy, almost molten brains, tender cheek and tongue, and (if you're lucky) chewy charred ears. A less common special pairs the pig's liver with sumptuous polenta.
As the offal offerings suggest, there's a purity to this food that's far from sterile. Boldness pervades even simple plates of roasted sardines, verdant seasonal vegetable salads, and the complimentary bread, which comes with a cup of velvety ricotta cheese sourced — like so much of Peasant's pantry — at legendary neighborhood Italian grocer Di Palo's. DeCarlo forgoes littlenecks in favor of slippery razors for a starter of baked clams redolent of garlic and white wine. It's an elegant switch that pays off. Whole squab (beak included) lies face-up on the plate, its head resting on a roasted pear-half as if it were a naptime pillow. The soft fruit and ultra-rare flesh augur a rousing alarm for the taste buds, a flurry of concentrated, musky flavors. While he scoffs at America's hyped-up food culture, the chef is grateful for contemporary diners' willingness to try new things, like those pigs' heads, which he'd previously thrown out. Now seasonal specials feature whole rabbits and goats. "Fifteen years ago almost everything we wanted to do was taboo," DeCarlo notes. "Nothing is off-limits now."
Meals begin with the declaration from your server that this is rural, "ancient cooking," spoken more like a warning than the humblebrag it ought to be. Forget small plates. DeCarlo's portions will challenge even the heartiest eater. Many main courses and specials are hefty enough to share, and a few starters — sausage-stuffed whole quail, for instance, or an egg-topped duck leg confited over white beans — could easily qualify as entrées. Edible flowers, multicolored cherry tomatoes, and basil contrast against a murky canvas of squid-ink risotto topped with whole cuttlefish. For dessert diners can order an entire fruit pie whose recipe changes daily but always includes a scoop of hazelnut gelato. Smaller sweet endings feed two (at least), like a bridal-white wedge of silky ricotta cheesecake with pistachio gelato. The best combines straightforward vanilla panna cotta with floral stone fruits.
Like the vintages served in Peasant's subterranean wine bar, DeCarlo and his restaurant have aged with grace, developing layers of complexity by sticking to a timeless formula. In looking to the future, he seems energized to dig even deeper into that ethos: "Peasant is going to go as far into the primitive element as we can take it, until people ask us to stop," he says.
We'd be fools to request anything of the sort.
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