I’ve heard it said that the pizza you love most is the one you taste first. The technical term is “imprinting,” used by psychologists to describe the way newly hatched ducklings follow the first warm body they see in front of them even if it’s an animal psychologist. In the States, we imprint pizzas with a Neapolitan or Sicilian crust. I can think of no other way to explain the cries of indignation that greeted the opening of Otto (“eight” in Italian), a new pizzeria on 8th Street that produces an unusual pie resembling neither Neapolitan nor Sicilian pizza.
The crust at Otto is extremely thin, almost like a cracker. Those who have traveled to central Italy will recognize this type immediately. Often called pizza romana, the crust is really just a staging platform for one or two perfect ingredients: a thin slice of aged pecorino, a shaving or two of black truffle sprinkled with olive oil, or a single squash blossom picked a few hours earlier in a nearby field. According to Burton Anderson, America’s spy in Tuscany, this variety predates the Neapolitan type, harkening back to Etruscan times, when pizza chefs cooked their product on a hot rock. The technique at Otto is remarkably similar: the pies are first baked from the bottom on a stove, then quickly browned in a broiler.
As with pizza romana, the product at Otto ($7 to $14) flaunts modest quantities of startlingly good ingredients. The signature pie, in fact, features lardo, air-cured strips of pork fat scented with nutmeg, partly melting into the crisp crust and producing a funky prosciutto like tang. This may be the kinkiest pizza the city has ever seen, and it’s not surprising that Famous Ray’s devotees are furious. Aiming to accommodate all tastes, the right half of the menu features reassuringly familiar toppings like pepperoni, prosciutto with arugula, and quattro stagione (artichokes, mushrooms, ham, and asparagus in separate quadrants). The left side lists wilder experiments involving ingredients like bottarga (pressed fish roe), Friulian cheese, chard, shaved fennel, and herb pesto. I can’t guarantee you’ll like all of them—I certainly don’t. My favorites include a potato, ricotta, and pickled-anchovy pie, and an almost conventional margherita smeared with a rich and creamy buffalo mozzarella.
Even if you despise the pies at Otto, you can still have a memorable meal. Among house-cured pork, the coppa ($8) is prodigal, a small-circumference shoulder-meat ham boasting a wonderful buttery texture. Beans al fiasco ($4) delivers a teacup of plump earthy beans cooked till they’re creamy inside, deposited in enough olive oil to dress a good-size salad. “Fritto del giorno” is a daily fried selection that comes drained on a piece of butcher paper and colorfully sprinkled with parsley, lemon zest, and crushed red chiles. Best is Saturday’s, a triangular variation on the chickpea fritters called panelle that one can still find in Brooklyn Sicilian focaccerias. Among the fish appetizers ($8), skip the baby octopus in favor of the scungilli salad—tender slices of conch reverently matched in the Italian American manner with chopped celery and fruity olive oil.
Otto is also an enoteca, and three-quarters of the menu is devoted to Italian wines organized by region. Though prices stray into the high-rolling $100 range, there are plenty of good bottles at $30 and less: a Sardinian cannonau, a Maremman morellino di Scansano, and a vine nobile de Montepulciano, in particular. But one of the most memorable taste sensations at Otto is as controversial as the pizzas. The olive oil gelato, drizzled with extra oil and dotted with crunchy sea salt, lies smooth and cold on the tongue. Like Otto itself, this frozen dessert shocks and then seduces. I was imprinted immediately.