It's right to be skeptical of the new places opening in Park Slope's lower altitudes, particularly around Fifth Avenue. Many are overpriced and underflavored. Thus it was a pleasant surprise when the first pie hit the table at La Villa, a glitzy and weird-looking new pizzeria right on Fifth. It claims to be related to a pair of shopping-center parlors in Howard Beach and Mill Basin, the latter a Brooklyn region so devoid of good restaurants that the mediocre Mill Basin Deli is considered the bestbut more about that later.
The focaccia di nonna ($9 small, $19 large) is a perfect evocation of the kind of pizza you might find in Naplesthe crust heavenly brown from a wood-burning oven that flickers on the other side of the room, the crushed tomatoes strewn by a devil-may-care hand, the rich mozzarella profuse and puddled on the surface, with little rivulets of pungent olive oil irrigating the entire pie. Bits of crushed garlic here and there seal the deal. Noting our astonishment at the first bite, the waitress revealed that the whole-milk mozzarella is made on the premises. This "grandma's pizza" deserves to take its place among the city's greatest pies. There were 14 other selections, too, each available in a bewildering array of formatsNeapolitan and Sicilian, large and small, square and round. Plus a list of independent ingredients that can be ganged up on any pie. I girded my loins for the tasting work ahead.
As if the pizza weren't enough at this strange restaurantwhere the tables are topped with brown marble fit for a pastry shop, the interior is paneled in dark wood as in a suburban rec room, the not particularly effective lighting fixtures descend from the ceiling like spaceships, and the decor generally suggests a strip mall in Dallasthere's also an extensive menu of antipasti, pasta, and main courses. We'd preceded our nonna pie that first visit with an antipasto platter that subtended a vast assortment of grilled, pickled, and sun-dried vegetables, plus mozzarella, provolone, and olives, providing a nice three-person feed for only $8.50. Man, this place comes on like gangbusters!
On subsequent visits, we sprinted from pie to pie, and judged the Romano ($19) second best, a double-crust extravaganza stuffed with fennel sausage, pepperoni, mozzarella, and smoky potatoes that had already been roasted once in the oven. Potatoes? Not sure what this pie has to do with Rome, but it's damn good anyway. Though the pastas were delivered in massive quantities, they were less inspired. Anything done in burning wood rules, especially the soupy lasagna bolognese ($10). The linguine with white clam sauce is tasty, though the use of tiny manila clams seems like a betrayal of Howard Beach's bivalvian heritage. The best main course would make any Sicilian swoon: a quartet of roasted fennel sausages sided with bitter broccoli rabe.
On a recent Saturday afternoon we hopped in Brian's new red Subaru and shot off to the hinterlands in search of the earlier La Villas. After glancing at the Mill Basin property, which was big and busy, we pressed on to Howard Beach. Founded in 1982, this outpost is actually in Lindenwood, a neighborhood near JFK so isolated that we had to drive in circles to reach it. Hunkering down in a strip mall anchored by a grocery store, La Villa père is a fraction of the offspring's size, with a menu that, surprisingly, differs by only 10 percent. One dish denied the Slope is rigatoni abruzzi, spiral-grooved tubes dressed with a tomato sauce teeming with ground beef, prosciutto, mushrooms, and chile peppers, just what you'd expect from the still-rustic mountain region lying directly east of Rome. Topped with oven-browned mozzarella, it's worth driving the breadth of Brooklyn to get.
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