Roasting meat and fish in a wood-burning oven is de rigueur in restaurants like Five Points, Mercer Kitchen, and the Harrison, lending a smoky aroma to the food and an aura of rustic simplicity to the establishments. A handful of places, including Beacon and Peasant, have taken the technique—which generates temperatures of 900 degrees and demands great skill in positioning vittles in the oven—one step further, making the hearth their centerpiece and adapting a much broader range of dishes to fire-roasting.
When it comes to wood, can there be too much of a good thing? To answer that question, Apizz recently appeared, an offshoot of Peasant located among Lower East Side housing projects. The restaurant, which must have once been a garage, turns an uninviting and nearly windowless face to the neighborhood, and a doorman often stands guard outside. Apizz (slang for pizza in Naples and, for some reason, Connecticut) carries the wood oven further than anyone has before, except, perhaps, Neanderthals squatting in smoky caves. Indeed, everything but a couple of salads is done in the massive arched oven, forming one wall of the brick dining room and imparting all the charm of a smelting factory.
The name promised pizza, and plenty of it. So I was bummed to find only three on the menu. The pies ($10-$12) are smallish and rectangular, with a thin crisp crust. Unfortunately, the toppings don’t budge beyond the obvious. While we found the Neapolitana (tomato, mozzarella, and basil) and the salsicca (Italian sausage) only satisfactory, the pizza bianca was delicious, its melded topping of mozzarella, ricotta, and parmesan soaking up plenty of smoke.
It turns out every dish on the menu needs to be judged by its ability to absorb smoke, or at least make it through the flames unharmed. One of our favorites was calamari oreganata ($10), described on the menu as “wood-baked calamari with herb breading.” If you expected a baked equivalent of fried calamari, you’d be sorely disappointed, since all the breading sloughs off as the squid cooks. But miraculously, the bread crumbs turn the oil in the bottom of the crock into a marvelous sauce. Other selections that flourish in the hearth include a daily-special sea bass ($22), beautifully blackened and sided with broccoli raab; a quartet of the most succulent and flavorful baby lamb chops ($26) you’ve ever tasted; and an appetizer of baked mussels ($10) in a cream-laced sauce. A pair of softball-size meatballs are dense and tasty, though the absence of spaghetti—or any starch for that matter—might be reckoned a culinary crime.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are those items destroyed by the oven. Our artichoke ($9) was roasted into mushiness, the crumb stuffing coagulated into an unsightly paste. Wrecked, too, was lasagna, with both varieties (spinach and “wild boar”) reduced to a swampy consistency. And the eggplant rollatini—one of the best choices in Brooklyn’s ancient Neapolitan joints like Winter and Romano—was a bitter, oversalted mess. At the very least, these dishes needed a slower, more predictable oven. Conclusion: Certain dishes are better kept out of the wood oven; the conventional oven is irreplaceable.
I have one more bone to pick. Apizz refuses credit cards—an absurdity in a place so expensive—but boasts of their convenient cash machine in the downstairs lounge. Convenient though it may be, it has been set to dispense only $100 at a time, meaning that, if your bill tops $200, you’ll end up getting stuck three times with the $1.50 service charge. Proving that the danger of mugging isn’t in the streets outside.