Fall Guide: Let Burning Lumber Do the Cooking


The past few months, we’ve been faithfully pursuing summer fare: berries from the farmers’ markets eaten plain or in smoothies, vegetables lightly sautéed in olive oil and garlic, seared seafood, local cheeses, and salads made from simple ingredients with the emphasis always on freshness. But now that colder weather is approaching, we pine for something more substantial—and more deeply flavorful.

Memories of autumn are often tied up in smoke: Those who grew up outside the city in less eco-conscious times remember the perfume of burning leaves freshly raked from front yards, and even in the city, the first whiff of the townhouse fireplaces of the wealthy is still a smell to be savored. Those of us bereft of upscale real estate, who have no reason to buy the Duralogs we see in nearly every bodega, will have to content ourselves with going to restaurants that boast wood-burning
ovens for our autumnal taste of smoke.

Here, then, are 10 suggestions for eating establishments that use real wood in their ovens to cook meats, poultry, fish, and vegetables.

Every morning, the staff at August (359 Bleecker Street, 212-929-4774) stokes the hearth with oak logs, and you can smell the smoke drifting up Bleecker Street. The restaurant—which offers seating in a glassed-in backyard where you can admire the changing colors of the outdoor foliage—uses that wood-burning oven to roast sustainable whole fish like branzino and dourade, but also deploys it to cook items as diverse as sausages, octopi, and Alsatian tarte flambés redolent of both smoke and smoky bacon.

Hardwoods like cedar, hickory, and oak are the combustible materials of choice in the smoker at Fette Sau (“fat pig” in German) (354 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-963-3404), a Texas-style barbecue in the heart of Williamsburg. Located in a former garage, the cramped seating is at picnic tables. The list of meats is wacky, ranging from doctrinaire beef brisket to the wildly experimental tongue pastrami. Craft-brewed beers complement the meats, which are sold by the pound and deposited on a tray—but they couldn’t be tastier.

The menu at East Village stalwart Five Points (31 Great Jones Street, 212-253-5700) is strewn with items baked in the wood-burning oven—a pizzette of potatoes, fontina cheese, and truffle oil; baked egg whites dotted with smoked mozzarella and spinach; roasted veal meatballs served with polenta; and, best of all, buttermilk-marinated chicken.

The Naples-style pizzas are especially large and lush at Motorino (319 Graham Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-599-8899), where the tree-fueled oven dominates the room like a sacrificial altar to some ancient religion. The pies come out stippled with char, and the simplest are the often the best, such as the margherita, made with mozzarella and a plainish tomato sauce, or the Pugliese, topped with bitter broccolini and sweet sausage, a devastatingly good combination. They even throw oddball items into the oven from time to time—such as their famous wood-roasted mortadella.

At Long Island City’s Testaccio (47-30 Vernon Boulevard, Queens, 718-937-2900), one of New York’s best stabs at a Roman trattoria, you can enjoy carciofo alla giudea (Jewish fried artichokes), coda alla vaccinara (butcher’s tripe), and taglioni cacio e pepe (pasta turned in a pecorino rind). But many of the restaurant’s best stuff flies from the flame-spewing fireplace, including a whole roasted pullet, a braise of veal tripe, and scallops roasted in their shells with breadcrumbs. The atmosphere is quiet and chill at this overlooked and largely unsung restaurant near the first stop into Queens on the 7 train, making it a great date spot.

King of Wood, Upscale Department: Chef Waldy Malouf charges an arm and a leg for his food, but if you’re willing to brave the onslaught of tourists at Midtown’s Beacon (25 West 56th Street, 212-332-0500), you can enjoy some spectacular wood-oven work—even without touching entrées or apps. The bi-level restaurant will make you a Bloody Mary out of smoky roasted tomatoes, and in addition to the usual meats, poultry, and fish, smoke can be a component of your dessert selection—flame-roasted strawberries or other fruits often end up on your ice cream or in your tart.

Many believe that the apex of wood-oven roasting is baby pig. At Cookshop (156 Tenth Avenue, 212-924-4440), where the oven is the flickering heart of the restaurant, that pig is stuffed with herbs in the style of Italian porchetta. The place boasts a rotisserie, too, where chicken and lamb are turned in the same fire, and an adjacent grill, on which rabbit, quail, escarole, asparagus, and beets also benefit from the smoke. Open four years, Cookshop has become an important pit stop for Chelsea art-gallery hoppers.

Hidden in plain sight in Carroll Gardens next to its more famous neighbor, Marco Polo, Enoteca on Court (347 Court Street, Brooklyn, 718-243-1000) might be mistaken for a normal wine bar, at which beverages overshadow the perfunctory food. But take one look at the menu, and realize you’re in a full-service restaurant with an ambitious Italian menu. Mid-premises, find a roaring fire in a beehive oven, which turns out excellent thin-crust pizzas, but also crock-baked pastas, the Sicilian kebabs called spedieni, and roasted vegetables like crumb-stuffed whole artichokes. The off-priced wine list is another plus.

The mother of all New York barbecues is Hill Country (30 West 26th Street, 212-255-4544), inspired by Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas. They import their wood (post oak) and beef sausages from the Lone Star State, and smoke their meats for as long as 10 hours. Available either fatty or lean (ask for a combo), the brisket is the thing to get, and the pork ribs aren’t too shabby, either. Most meat is sold by the pound, though the sides are as forgettable as the meats are memorable. Sit at the picnic
tables and enjoy the décor, which consists of piles of wood, corrugated tin, and documentary photos of—where else?—Lockhart.

If you travel in the Central Italian nether regions, it’s not uncommon to stumble on an osteria where the Florentine steak is cooked on a grate in the fireplace. It tastes damn good, while transporting you back to a time when cooking and heating the house utilized one and the same energy source. Grilling steaks while conserving energy is also the practice at Landmarc (179 West Broadway, 212-343-3883), where the steaks are done in the hearth—using either charcoal or hardwood—making the heat source and the fire that warms the cockles of your heart the very same. There’s no tastier way to prepare a juicy steak.