There's a Pizzeria on the Edge of Town: Whit's End in Rockaway Beach
All photos Bradley Hawks
"I meant to tell you the last pie I got was bad," a weathered veteran grumbles while awaiting his order at Whit's End in Rockaway Beach.
Such blunt criticism would sting at any local slice joint, but the fact that it is addressed to a man some call the Pizza Nazi causes the chef's two lieutenants to fall silent, their eyebrows raised. We all wait with bated breath for Whitney Aycock — a man known to exile customers for requesting their pizza by the slice and to charge exorbitant sums for special requests — to respond.
His brow furrowed, the pizzaiolo bellies up to the prep counter and says...
"Well, what was wrong with it?"
Choleric and lovable in equal measure, Aycock is the Queens incarnation of Lower East Side legend Kenny Shopsin: all grouch and no slouch. Cantankerousness aside, Aycock gives a fuck. It says so right on his menu, amid a long list of disclaimers and rules to follow at the pizzeria he opened two years ago: declarations like "Everything we touch has gluten on it" and "We say fuck a lot — really, a lot!" under the heading "Some of our many faults."
In this small, charmingly raw space (adjacent to the artsy lodgings of the Playland Motel), Aycock and his staff churn out just-blistered pizzas and other goodies from a massive, Italian-made wood-fired oven whose colorful dome is painted with a dreamy seascape. The furnace takes up half the kitchen, its chimney crowned with a pyramid of stacked baseball caps. Adorning the walls, fratty posters of women wearing bikinis posing topless and handcuffed provide a visual vinyl record scratch to remind you of the brusque characters who are preparing your food.
The oven's embers form superlative Neapolitan-style pies made from Italian flour and strewn with enlightened toppings — clams and house-made sausage zinged with peperoncini, or cured meats with arugula and lemon. Whit's End (97-14 Rockaway Beach Boulevard) offers a baker's dozen varieties (twelve on the menu, plus a nightly special). My personal favorite marries brittle, crisp artichoke hearts, charred lemon ricotta, and rosemary, a combination that comes out savory, herbal, and bright. Concentrated sugars imbue Aycock's tomato sauce with a lip-smacking quality that works wonders with Italian charcuterie — on pizzas topped with mortadella, spicy soppressata, or prosciutto cotto. The sole subpar pie I encountered was a white one, silky and richly piquant with soft, ripe robiola, that could have used a touch more of the promised asparagus.
A raw/refined dichotomy permeates every experience at Whit's End. Seating is limited to barstools or a plush sofa that's a favorite of millennials, who melt into it like so much broiled fior di latte — mozzarella made from cow's milk (as opposed to buffalo), Aycock's main squeeze when it comes to pizza toppings — after crushing cans of $2 Lionshead pilsner. Bolder suds, a quartet of craft beers priced at $5 to $6, make for sublime sipping between bites of aggressively seasoned "fuckin' bluefish" or mackerel dips made from fish smoked out back and served with charred sticks of pizza dough sprinkled with sea salt. It's a shockingly good combination, the smooth dip topped with scallions, cracked black pepper, and a sheen of olive oil.
Even on busy nights, when he's at his most animated, Aycock slips into a rhythm that betrays his upbringing. Raised in the Caribbean, he worked at his father's Montego Bay restaurant before traveling to Naples and Tuscany, where his old man's friends taught him the ins and outs of rustic cooking. Then came seven years in New York's restaurant-kitchen crucible, after which, in 2007, he settled in the Rockaways. The restaurant-name double entendre is revealing: Aycock says he'd tired of "all the corporate bullshit" that comes with working for someone else. "Wood fire reinvigorated my attitude towards food," he adds.
It is in fact the friction between formal and primal that keeps Whit's End whirring like an ocean liner on glassy seas, with Aycock at its helm, a prickly captain. He often chops wood in the open kitchen. When one patron presumes to snap a photo of the specials menu, the chef brandishes his ax and faux-snarls, "Five hundred dollars if you take that picture." Then, raising the tool to cleave another log, he quips, "I'm just fucking with you."
The specials are no joke, though: thick New York strip, sizzled at 850 degrees until charred and bloody; broiled bass, crusted with shrimp and set with spring peas; a "fuckin' good burger" worth the boast, its coarse grind topped with aged cheddar and sweet-hot pepper jelly. The non-pizza menu mainstays soar too — from roasted market vegetables tossed with tomatoes, shallots, capers, and parsley to a daily "quick ass" ceviche that pops with jalapeño, grapefruit, and cilantro to pork-belly tacos with pickled hominy and "hot shit."
Aycock serves it all on oval platters repurposed from a Columbus, Ohio, bar and grill; he tells me he bought them up for 50 cents apiece. Thinking of his restaurant-family upbringing, I ask whether they have some special significance. "No," he snaps back. "I'm fuckin' Jewish!"
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