The beehive oven squats at the end of Keste, its guts filled with volcano stone from Sorrento, looking more like an Olmec head or maybe R2-D2 than an oven.
I’m pleased to announce that the pizzas at Keste have gotten much better since I reviled them for sloppy baking several months ago, and attributed it to inexperience with their own oven. Wood ovens are like people; it takes a while to get to know them. At the time, I promised to return after the oven had been broken in.
The margherita ($12) I ate there yesterday was a masterpiece, sporting a pristine floe of white cheese, pleasantly plain tomato sauce, a perfect strew of basil leaves, and, most important, a crust worthy of Naples places like Da Michele, stipled with char, thin and wobbly in the middle under the admittedly damp ingredients, the crust around the periphery bulbous and tender without being doughy or underdone.
The margherita pie at Keste is now an enduring thing of beauty.
As for the concept of authenticity, I have two small cavils: My margherita had far more cheese on it than it would have had in Naples (Shall we chalk it up to “American influence”?). And several of the topping combinations available on the menu are far from typical, and sometimes not even good. The pizza del papa is a case in point, smeared with something called squash cream, then cross hatched with red and yellow ripe Holland peppers, and slices of artichoke. As a final coffin nail, smoked mozzarella is used. The combination doesn’t seem Neapolitan in the least. Shouldn’t Keste’s claim to authenticity also be vewed in light of its toppings?
But aside from a few such pies I’m steering clear of, I’ll be returning to Keste for the simple pies that feature real Naples ingredients. When I’m not in John’s across the street, that is. 271 Bleecker Street, 212-243-1500
The toppings on the pizza del papa aren’t traditional–they also aren’t very good.