The new Naples-style pizzeria on Bleecker Street—just across from the venerable New York pizzeria John’s—calls itself Kesté, which means, “This is it” in Neapolitan slang (and, yes, you probably should take that for the boasting it sounds like). Kesté’s logo is an impressionistic rendering of a volcano erupting with what looks like tomato sauce—a reference to Mount Vesuvius, which is near Naples. The restaurant’s long, narrow space, relatively unadorned and packed with simple wooden tables and chairs, culminates at the far end of the room in a beautiful, domed pizza oven, covered in copper-colored tiles. The oven’s dimensions—the shape of the dome, the size of the mouth—have all been painstakingly built to the scale of a traditional Neapolitan pizza oven. The floor of the oven is made from volcanic stone from Sorrento, shipped to New York in pieces and assembled by two craftsmen flown in from Naples. Kesté is less pizza joint than pizza temple.
The Italian-born chef/owner Roberto Caporuscio, who changed careers 11 years ago from dairy farmer to pizzaiolo, is at his post in front of the stove, his large, meaty hands dusted with flour as he stretches a blob of dough—made with super-fine (“Caputo OO”) Italian flour—into a disc. The slick of tomato sauce that he ladles onto it is made with San Marzano tomatoes, and the cheese is Italian buffalo mozzarella. Every now and then, he feeds more wood (hardwoods, like oak and cherry) to the fire. Caporuscio is the head of the American chapter of the Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani, a group that dedicates itself to training and certifying pizza-makers in fabricating the most authentic, Naples-style pizzas—the oven must be wood-burning, the ingredients Italian, the dimensions of the pie just so.
As a reaction against cheese products and Pizza Hut, the new focus on traditional ingredients and foodways is understandable. But a simple adherence to the APN’s guidelines doesn’t guarantee a great pie.
Kesté’s pizzas are, on the whole, tasty—as long as you’re not expecting a crisp, thinnish New York–style crust. Pizza in Naples is usually eaten with a knife and fork; the crust is puffy and bread-like, and the middle is often sodden with olive oil. Kesté’s crust is classically Naples-style—the crusts are billowy, chewy, and soft, dotted with a dappling of char. You couldn’t pick up a slice even if you wanted to—it would flop, and the toppings would slide off. A bite from the center of one of Kesté’s pies is soft and even goopy, and it’s meant to be that way. I did wish the pizzas had spent just a few more seconds in the oven, though: The crust is supposed to be soft, but on my visits, it tended to be slightly underdone.
There are 18 different pies available, ranging from $9 to $19, from the simple (margherita, marinara, mushroom) to the baroque (butternut cream–artichoke, prosciutto-truffle spread). All the pies are about 10 inches in diameter and ringed with that distinctively puffy crust. There’s also a selection of simple salads, which are fine except for the caprese, which was made with hard, mealy winter tomatoes. Making a salad with out-of-season tomatoes and mozzarella means that half the dish is awful. The best of the small appetizer selection is the battilocchio, a fat, crusty oblong of pizza dough with toppings varying by the day.
The classic margherita is done well, with a bright-tasting tomato sauce and beautiful gobs of mozzarella that look like melted marshmallows. I also especially liked the salsicca pizza, which is dotted with rich, gamey clumps of pork sausage that comes from Faicco’s Pork Store across the street. (The charcuterie, like the prosciutto and salami, comes from Chelsea’s wonderful Salumeria Biellese.) The pizza del papa—smeared all over with butternut-squash cream, enriched with gobs of smoked mozzarella, and scattered with shredded artichokes—was pleasant, but more eccentric than truly enjoyable. I admit that I loved the expensive ($19) pizza del re—with funky truffle cream, mushrooms, mozzarella, prosciutto, and tons of olive oil—although its goopy, in-your-face richness won’t be for everyone. In general, the simpler the pie, the better.
When I mentioned my plans to visit Kesté, my colleague, Robert Sietsema, sounded put off by the restaurant’s claims to über-authenticity. “Put up your dukes,” he scoffed. “Pizza was invented in New York—not Naples.”
But what about the famous tale of Queen Margherita? The story goes that her interest in the flatbreads eaten by Neapolitan peasants led to the late-19th-century creation of the pizza Margherita—a flatbread festooned with the colors of the Italian flag: white mozzarella, green basil, and red tomatoes. “That was only a few years before Lombardi opened the first pizza shop in New York anyway,” Robert replied. “And what pizza has come to be—an outsize flatbread with many toppings, shared among a group—is an Italian-American invention.” An invention, he went on, that has crossed the ocean back to Italy, and around the world.
Well, we might agree that the evolution of pizza into its current, most well-known form happened in New York, but that pizza’s historic roots were in the flatbreads of Naples, particularly after the tomato (a new world native) became popular in Italy around the late 18th century. That’s where pizza came from—no matter how much it has changed since then. “Then you might as well say that pizza has its roots in Middle Eastern pita bread,” Robert replied. Well, that’s true, of course, and the word “pizza” is probably a bastardization of the word “pita.” The moral of the story: What you mean when you say a pizza is “authentic” all depends on where you choose to pick up the thread of the story.