Lievito is an Italian restaurant. No, I mean a real Italian restaurant, as if it had been picked up by a spaceship in the mid-calf part of the boot and deposited right on Hudson Street, with no concessions to American sensibilities or tinkering with the menu to make it more Yankee.
This attitude (or lack of one) begins with the décor: tables topped with very plain blond wood, dark-veneered walls, a diffuseness of light that creates a feeling of spaciousness even though the dining room is actually cramped. The even illumination allows you to inspect everything on the table in front of you as if in a microscope, yet so flattering that your dining companions resemble zit-free movie stars. A picture window looks into a finger-shaped kitchen with a white-tiled hearth, and there’s a bar to one side with a pair of metal cocoons overhead cradling wine bottles from a devastatingly good and relatively low-priced Italian wine list. An excellent bottle of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano costs just $33.
The place is the work of three partners—two from Florence and another from Milan—at least one of whom can be seen bustling around the dining room and jollying up the guests at all times. Most of the diners are actual Italians, who shake the snow off their Prada boots and take their places at the tables with merry musical chatter, showing they’re very pleased to be there. Lievito (“Leavening”) is nominally a pizzeria, but it’s far more than that. In the early days (we’re talking two or three months ago), it seemed to be trying to turn out the True Pie of Naples—an idiotic pursuit if ever there was one. But lately, a new pizza style has been evolving. The crust is more like what we used to call a Neapolitan crust in New York: the “bone,” or circumferential edge, nicely browned but not charred, the undercrust relatively thin but not sopping, the toppings generous but not overbearing.
This splendid crust serves as a vehicle for some of the most interesting pizza-topping combos seen lately, reflecting Northern Italian sensibilities and preferences. Sure, there’s a Margherita ($14) made with imported tomatoes and fresh mozzarella as creamy as the face of a virgin in Le Mort d’Arthur, but there’s also one called Wurstel ($16), which features little rounds of a sausage something like a hot dog, hence the Teutonic name. I’ve seen similar pies in Emilia-Romagna, but putting franks on a pizza is something no one would dare do here—until now. The pie is unexpectedly scrumptious, the franks like little smoky and salty islands in a sea of mild tomato sauce and cheese.
An entire section of the pizza menu—which offers 18 pizzas in total—is devoted to white pies, reflecting a general Northern Italian indifference when it comes to tomatoes. Many are sprinkled with aromatic fresh herbs, so you begin drooling as soon as you sniff the pizza advancing across the room. A case in point is the Carita, referring to a chaste and benevolent love, as in our word “charity.” The pie comes topped with fresh rosemary and leeks, knuckles of porky sausage, and fresh mushrooms, which dry out slightly in the oven, concentrating their flavor. You’ll feel like you’ve fallen face-down in a meadow.
By contrast to this newfangled style of pizza pie, many of the appetizers might be described as traditional Tuscan, only that isn’t specific enough. More properly, they’re Florentine, including pappa al pomodoro ($13), a pap of breadcrumbs mixed with tomato purée into a pudding that could be mistaken for a highly textured Gerbers. On a snowy night, it’s comfort food of the highest order. As with the hot dog pizza, what restaurant here would dare serve it? Sformatino is another Florentine commonplace, a sort of artichoke-and-taleggio Jell-O intended to be spread on bread. Both recall the cooking of Cibreo, a restaurant on Florence’s Via de’ Macci that irreverently takes standard Tuscan dishes and then mutates the hell out of them.
There are also a series of simple but voluminous salads (most $9) featuring a single green such as radicchio or watercress in a light dressing tossed with candied lemon rind or pink-peppercorn-studded sundried tomatoes—odd but refreshing. The pastas—including a crock-borne lasagna with more béchamel than noodle—are forgettable, but the soups—based on herby purées of beans, peas, or potatoes—make solid starters.
Ultimately, it’s the pizzas you’ll dream about, perfect cheese-smeared and herb-flecked Frisbees unlike any others in town. It’s what Tuscan pizza would be like—if Tuscany had pizza, which it doesn’t.
More photos here: Inside Lievito: West Village Pizzeria