Barboncino: Naples Staples
Barboncino is yet another of the wood-burning, Naples-aping pizzerias that have lately covered certain parts of the city like so much melted mozzarella. I can see why restaurateurs love these places: The pies are tiny and twice as expensive ounce for ounce as those at the city's old-fashioned neighborhood pizzerias. Wines and beers sold at premium prices are part of the package. These upstarts often exhibit an icy pretentiousness that's out of place with the democratic ideals pizza represents. Some have even invited representatives of Italian organizations here to "certify" their pizzas as genuine. Screw 'em! New York is nobody's pizza colony.
So I was skeptical when a friend raved about a new wood-oven parlor that recently opened near her apartment in Crown Heights. The nabe was, not long ago, mainly Caribbean and West African. In fact, on the same block stands one of the city's best West African restaurants, Fatima, a Guinean spot selling spicy meat-and-leaf-vegetable stews ladled over rice. That place is comfy and well lit, sporting mismatched chairs and tables where knots of men kibitz about business and news from back home. By contrast, Barboncino reeks of upscale hauteur. There's scant signage outside. Inside, you'll find a darkened warren of wood-clad rooms on two levels, lit by the flicker of votive candles. The benches are hard and backless, and the place feels like a house of worship for the god Pizza.
Sad day for the city? Not really, because Barboncino's small pies often flaunt big flavors and can be a buck or two cheaper than similar products in Manhattan. Take their margherita ($11). The pie was invented in 1889 to honor the queen of Italy's visit to Naples. This was the first time Italians had put cheese on their pizzas, which until then were more like pitas smeared with tomato sauce—strictly poverty food. The margherita inspired the invention of Italian-American pizza a few years later at Lombardi's on Spring Street, making New York's pies every bit as ancient and venerable as those of Naples.
Barboncino's margherita arrives with a crust delicately dotted with char spots, flooded with plainish tomato sauce, decorated with pungent basil, and splotched with local mozzarella (which the menu disingenuously calls "fiori di latte"). In Neapolitan fashion, the pie is soupy in the middle, necessitating the use of a knife and fork. You can't eat a slice using the fabled New York fold, or else, as W.B. Yeats famously said, "things fall apart; the center cannot hold"—and you're going to find your shirt decorated with cheese and sauce. The reason Gotham's century-old Neapolitan pies sported a thicker crust—making slice-folding possible—is that ours, cooked in hotter coal ovens, were much larger and more generously topped, celebrating the gastronomic opulence Italian immigrants found in the New World. Unlike Naples pies, American pizzas were born to be shared.
As an artifact from another time and continent, Barboncino's margherita is unsurpassed. In fact, the pie is better than that at Kesté, Manhattan's most respected Naples-style parlor. Other pies at Barboncino worth drooling over include artichoke and smoked pancetta ($17), which sports long-stemmed 'chokes sprawling across a sea of white cheese like back-floating swimmers. Invisible cubes of pancetta add a bacon-y savor. I dream about this pie. Another success story features the spicy large-bore salami called soppressata ($15), in a tip of the hat to the Apulian immigrants who brought the sausage to Brooklyn.
There are a couple of inferior pies, too. Using clams on a pizza is always an iffy proposition. Sadly, Barboncino de-shells the bivalves first, depriving us of the clam broth that spills out when the shells open. The naked cherrystones are minced and placed on a cheese-saturated pie, overwhelming their briny flavor with dairy. Similarly, the boring marinara, priced at $8, represents the kind of pie made in Naples before the margherita was invented. It's strictly for the lactose-intolerant.
Barboncino's menu is intelligently brief: nine pizzas and nine apps. The starters are totally predictable, and that's how it should be. A pleasant platter of charcuterie ($19) comes with an oven-baked rosemary-strewn flatbread, and there's also a parallel cheese plate. Then there are decent meatballs (four for $9) and a couple of salads, too. Of the Bibb lettuce with walnuts and dried-cherry vinaigrette, a dining companion fumed: "That salad was ripped off from Roberta's."
The best app, though, is a wad of variegated peppers ($8), glistening with olive oil in pretty shades of red and yellow. Ramping up the sweetness tremendously, the wood fire has wonderfully concentrated their flavor. Heck, skip the gelato and make these peppers your dessert.
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