I awakened from an afternoon doze to find Mario Batali doing a commercial for OTB. Jolly and florid of face, he slouched on a bar stool waving a slice of pizza and encouraging his admirers to come down to O’Neill’s in Maspeth, Queens, where a horse-betting parlor had been installed inside the restaurant. Let’s forget for a moment my disappointment at seeing my favorite TV chef turned tout—I’d sooner catch him selling crack. What really floored me was Mario referring to the slice as “some of the best pizza in New York.” Irish pizza? But such is my respect for Batali that I soon found myself in a battered Toyota with a couple of Brooklyn pals maneuvering up Flushing Avenue past tortillerias and sugarcane stands, making for the Queens frontier.
O’Neill’s is a green-awninged complex that sprawls around a residential corner in one of the city’s whitest and most isolated neighborhoods. Entering a smoky bar on a Sunday afternoon, we propelled past dining rooms to a windowless rear sanctuary, where dozens of TVs lined the walls, casting a surreal light over tables where snowy-haired couples sat, their Racing Forms spread before them. Periodically, a hoarse shout went up on the order of “Lulu, get your ass moving, girl.” At a window in the corner a pair of men behind computer terminals took bets as horse derriéres flickered across the screens. The pricey menu went from clams casino to $60 steaks for two, but no one was paying attention to the food. Jammed beside the bar was a brick pizza oven.
The service was horrible, but when we finally got the harried waiter to hand over the separate pizza menu, it proved a compact and alluring document. In addition to an octet of prescribed formulations like clam pie and white pizza, there were 14 optional ingredients for constructing your own. Before the waiter could escape, we ordered a large pie, to which we added sweet sausage, extra mozzarella, anchovies, and, as a wild card, something called “ricotta impastata.” We asked to have raw garlic strewn over the whole thing.
Our $16.76 pizza was memorably great, the thin crust not bogged down by the lush distribution of premium ingredients. It was better than the sainted artichoke pie at DiFara’s in Brooklyn. As the slices vanished, I realized I owed Mario an apology. And how about a $2 ticket on Hunny’s Devil to win in the second at Pimlico?
A spate of Turkish luxury groceries have been opening around town, with little notice from the media (what, no publicist?). In addition to a peculiar selection of upscale provisions, ZEYTUNA (59 Maiden Lane, 483-0117) also flogs a specialty known as gozleme that originated during the Ottoman Empire as a sort of Anatolian crepe. A cart out front offers two versions at $3.95 each, one featuring feta with fresh dill and parsley, the other substituting potatoes for cheese. Folded into a square package, brushed with butter, and nicely browned, both are exceptionally tasty.
And then there were three: Joining Da Silvano and Bar Pitti on a tree-lined stretch of Sixth, CANTINETTA (260 Sixth Avenue, 844-0282) aims to be the less-formal sibling, while still slinging food in the pared-down, fresh-ingredient style associated with Tuscany. The prices aim to beat Da Silvano’s, too, but don’t particularly succeed. Despite irritating service, we loved the squid-ink tagliarini—midnight ribbons in a spare tomato sauce knuckled with shrimp—and the Florentine tripe stew, so rich it was impossible to finish the bowl. The open storefront makes for breezy summer dining.