Co.: An Abbreviated Restaurant
"Do you think we could get this without the truffles?" one of my friends asks me, as we stare at our $40 pizza. The bubbly surface is covered in béchamel, pecorino, and large slices of black truffle—wobbly edged, quarter-sized slices of the mushroom, maybe a half-ounce's worth. You should be able to smell this pizza across the room, but that earthy-funky truffle aroma is absent, and the flavor is only discernible if you pluck a slice off the pizza and chew on it while breathing heavily through your nose. (Not a pretty moment for me.) A diner sitting next to me at the communal table leans over: "Those can't be real truffles," he says, "or that would have cost $100."
Deep breath, everyone—I'm not alleging that Co. is serving fake truffles. These were clearly genuine. (I'm not sure how you would produce fakes.) I'm told the fungi are from France, but ours had either been bought at a fire sale or were so old and mistreated that there was no longer any reason to shell out $40 for a pie covered in them. And here lies the bottom line about Co., Jim Lahey's new, ultra-hyped pizza restaurant: If you care about crust, you should go. Period. But the care, clearly lavished on the crust, has been dealt out stingily to the hit-or-miss toppings, and the prices seesaw from very fair to immoderate.
Co. (pronounced "company") is owned and operated by Lahey, the co-owner of the Sullivan Street Bakery. At the bakery, he turns out excellent Roman-style pizza bianca. But he wanted to delve further into pizza making. After all, crust always seems to make or break a pizza, and if anyone can guarantee a good bread product, it's Lahey. Pizza obsessives and restaurant watchers across the city followed the opening of this project like it was the second coming—adding to the hysteria is the fact that Jean-Georges Vongerichten is an investor.
230 Ninth Avenue, 212-243-1105
And it's true that not often do you look up from your pizza and see Jean-Georges himself, lounging around the bar in his chef whites (although he doesn't cook at Co.). In the weeks immediately following the restaurant's opening, there were reports zinging around the Internet—tales of two-hour-long waits and incredibly rude service. My advice is that if there's a line out the door, maybe you ought to come back some other time—it's not like they're serving up federal bailouts in there. I found that if you arrive between 6 and 6:45, you shouldn't have trouble getting a table. If that's not feasible for you, wait until the hysteria dies down, as it probably will. As for the service: On all of my visits, it was nothing but friendly, capable, and unobtrusive.
Co.'s margherita pizza has much in common with the classic Neapolitan pie, but the rest of the menu is mainly Lahey's invention. A representative calls it "Jim's style" or "Company's style," instead of referencing any part of Italy. Because Co.'s pizza is idiosyncratic, it's hard to compare it to other New York pies. I like it better than Franny's, but not nearly as much as DiFara's, but that's comparing apples to oranges in the pizza world. Suffice it to say that I would not wait in line for an hour to eat at Co., but I would be very happy if it had opened in my neighborhood.
There are nine pies available, ranging from that "special pie" with truffles (a/k/a highway robbery), to a crust simply adorned with olives, anchovies, and chilies, to a crazy quilt pie of shaved radicchio, béchamel, three cheeses, onions, and chilies.
On nearly every pie that we tried, there were small sections of crust that were totally incinerated—but although some people will mind that slight bitter imperfection, I'm not one of them. The gas oven is set at 900 degrees and generally results in a perfect dappling of char on the bottom and outer crust. "Our pies are not always round," states the menu, just in case you were going to get riled up about that, and indeed, each one is an irregular circle, about eight inches across. The crust is thin in the center, but sturdy and personable enough to stand up to the toppings (except the excessive radicchio) without sagging. As you eat your way up the slice, the crust gets slightly thicker and yields more puff and bubbles. If you rip it apart, a beautiful network of big and small holes reveals itself. The fragrant, yeasty bread is chewy and soft, with just a bit of crackle-crunch on the outside.
But it's not pizza without something on top (even if it's just olive oil and salt), and often, the whole pie didn't quite come together. Take the margherita: It was delivered to our table with exactly two small leaves of basil on it. Four slices, two leaves of basil. My friend asked if it was possible to get a few extra leaves of basil, and was told no, that was not possible. It's still a tasty pie, but this isn't your corner pizza place; it's a restaurant that charges $5 for bread and butter and has a nice wine list with bottles for up to $60. A little basil shouldn't be a problem. Plus, the tomato sauce, while zesty and exceedingly fresh-tasting, is a bit acidic and one-note, lacking the rounded complexity of a great tomato sauce.
The two best pies are the ham-and-cheese and the boscaiola. The ham-and-cheese is covered in a thick layer of rich, salty dairy goodness—pecorino, buffalo mozzarella, and Gruyère—and layered with silky-thin slices of prosciutto. It's zipped up with a sprinkle of caraway seeds. The boscaiola is dotted with some very fine pork sausage, along with buffalo mozzarella, tomato sauce, onions, mushrooms, and a bit of chile.
The pizza bianca is made from the same recipe as the version at the Sullivan Street Bakery, but is formed into rounds and served warm. As is traditional, it's sprinkled with rosemary, sea salt, and a tiny drizzle of olive oil—the big surprise is that it's actually the same size as the other pizzas (which range from $7 to $17) but is sold for the amazingly low price of $3. The bread and butter is actually more expensive, as are the appetizer toasts, which come one per $4 order.
There are a lot of people in this city who take pizza at least as seriously as nuclear disarmament. I guess I should confess that I'm not one of them. I looked around at the huddled masses clustered around the door of Co., waiting for hours as patiently as cattle, and I just didn't get it. Still, a great crust is a beautiful thing.
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