My cell phone vibrated like a small rodent chewing on my leg, and by the time I’d extracted it from my pants pocket, all I could hear was labored breathing on the other end of the line. Suddenly, a voice blurted out: “You’re not gonna believe this, but an incredible pizza parlor has just opened up in my neighborhood.”
“Calm down a minute. Where is it?” I asked, recognizing the voice and trying not to sound too interested.
“At the corner of Halsey and Lewis, two blocks away. You don’t understand,” she continued dramatically. “We’ve never had great pizza in Bed-Stuy before.”
Saraghina—named after the fat, frowsy prostitute in Federico Fellini’s 8½—has landed at the corner of Halsey Street and Lewis Avenue like the silvery spaceship in the movie. It occupies an ancient framed structure that might have been dragged from North Carolina, sporting a hot and claustrophobic front dining room, a wood-burning oven, and a modern kitchen halfway back that connects to a rear dining room by a series of secret passages your waiter will help you navigate (take a wrong turn, and you end up outside, in an alleyway). The rear chamber is white and lined with glass cases, making it look like a pickling plant or mortuary operating room. Seek egress from that back room, and find a garden as pretty as any in Italy—only surrounded by cluttered tenement yards instead of grapevines and olive trees.
The proprietors are from Emilia-Romagna, the region of northern Italy responsible for balsamic vinegar, mustard-oil pickles called mustarda, and a plethora of cured pork products like mortadella, culatello, and prosciutto. The proprietors know their hams, and one of the best starters is the $19 charcuterie assortment, garnished with walnuts, pistachios, grapes, honey, and fruit mustarda, offered on a wooden cutting board that can barely contain the profusion. (Our fave? A rustic neck-meat ham called capocollo.) A cheese platter at the same price isn’t as impressive.
The list of special apps, which changes daily, is twice the length of the regular antipasto list. Sometimes the selections are thrilling, like the gorgeous swordfish carpaccio ($13) pinwheeled on the plate, engulfed in green olive oil and shotgunned with whole pink peppercorns. With a tip of the hat to Brooklyn’s Italian-Americans, a plate of raw littlenecks is offered in their shells, with lemon wedges as the sole accompaniment. Festooned with fresh mint, the starter of luscious melon with strips of prosciutto totally rocks, a dish seen at nearly every trattoria and osteria in Italy, but often considered too old-hat here.
Though pizza is Saraghina’s raison d’être , the pie list is comically short. That’s OK, because the special apps list includes pastas, of which the simple spaghetti with fresh tomatoes and basil ($12) turned out to be the best evocation I’ve had this year. Don’t discount the possibility of putting a meal together entirely of appetizers—in this regard, you should consider the octopus salad as well as the shaved fennel salad heaped with grated Parmesan, which looks like a snow scene on a Currier & Ives calendar. Skip the monkfish, which isn’t sustainable.
But why avoid the pizzas when they’re this perfect? With no claims to making the “true pizza of Naples,” these dudes are smart enough to concoct pies that resemble that city’s in the fine texture of the bread and simplicity of the ingredients, while being a bit larger and hence more shareable. Of the six offered, the margherita ($13) is the best; though you might be tempted to pay an extra two bucks for the buffalo mozzarella version, on the two occasions I enjoyed the lesser-priced pie, it came with mozzarella di bufala anyway.
My second favorite pie is the capocollo ($14), which uses a ham beloved of Apulians and Calabrians, who constitute a large share of Italian immigrants to Brooklyn. It curls up like a herd of small dogs on top of your pizza, and the concentrated saltiness enhances the inherent blandness of the dough and tomato sauce. The only pie I didn’t dig was the ortolano: Draped with slices of zucchini and eggplant, the toppings are far too blah to make a scrumptious entrée.
At the time of this writing, the place is still BYOB. As a tribute to the proprietors, who have fused a Naples-style pizza parlor with Bolognese sensibilities, why not bring a light, fizzy red lambrusco, and let the bubbles dance on your tongue? It’s like PBR mixed with Brunello, and there’s nothing better to lubricate a Brooklyn backyard tenement twilight.