For the first century of its existence as an iconic New York food, pizza was easy to define: crust, tomato sauce, cheese. Sure, there were variations that sprung up from time to time. The ziti slice surprised us, and so did the white pizza, the tomato sauce having gone AWOL. Imitations of the original Naples pie diverted our attention, but like other innovations, this one remained reverently within the canon of pizza as we know it—only smaller. Eventually, someone had to throw baby and bathwater out the window at the same time, and it has finally happened at a small pizzeria in an obscure corner of Crown Heights.
Pete Zaaz makes fun of the venerable foodstuff with its very name. The place occupies a tenement storefront on Classon Avenue, which points like an arrow to Eastern Parkway and the Brooklyn Museum. The premises is so narrow and dark that you pass the pizza makers—a wonderfully ragtag crew who giggle as you enter—as if they were an animated diorama in the museum. Seating is slapdash, with a table or two, stooled dispensing window, and dining shelves along the wall, but the place opens up into a glorious backyard, boasting such unexpected amenities as a movie screen and herb garden. As with Dom DeMarco’s influential establishment, these herbs are central to many of the pies.
Until not too long ago, there were certain inalienable rules regarding pizza, and one of them was “No Cheddar Cheese.” So I was skeptical about Zaaz’s baked-potato pie ($17). The eight-slice contraption features a paving of white cheddar and crumbled bacon that the menu facetiously refers to as “lardons,” lampooning pretentiousness while also being slightly pretentious. The spud component consists of deeply purple Peruvian potatoes, much richer and denser than Idahos. Finally, there’s a crème fraîche blob in the middle, to be dabbed on individual slices at your discretion.
The toppings rest on a crust with a surface that snaps like thin ice, with a crumb of pleasing density and dampness, really one of the best crusts I’ve seen in ages. Like the backbeat in rock, the crust is pizza’s essential ingredient, not the tomato or cheese.
The baked-potato pie is revolutionary. The rollicking crew has experimented with other oddball pies, but none can quite match it. Of the two menus that Zaaz has fielded since opening, plus a few experimental pizzas offered temporarily, the Mexico chorizo ($17) is the best, with a zesty tomato sauce, queso blanco, pickled onions, nuggets of skinless sausage, and—odd man out—slivers of kiwi. The fruit enhances the visual appeal while multiplying moisture, but frankly, if you closed your eyes and took a bite, you’d never shout “Kiwi!”
The recently introduced pretzel parm ($19)—featuring a “garlic chip” béchamel, smoked Gouda, and fried chicken—sports unadvertised swatches of sweet red pappadeaux pepper on top, like red flags waving from lumber sticking out of car trunks. Unfortunately, the pie is too gloppy and falls short of delicious, though the smokiness of the Gouda is a boon. Not sure what “pretzel” refers to. My theory is that a more Teutonic platform was intended at one point, but the original crust won out. But keep exploring those random cheese choices, fellas.
More interesting is a new pie that features shredded summer squash, fontina, and tomatillos in squiggles of pale green sauce squirted from a bottle. The mouthfeel is intriguingly slimy. For lovers of more conventional pies, the Brooklyn ($14) remains an exemplary and budget-conscious choice, the admirable crust topped with plainish tomato sauce and good mozzarella, which the menu familiarly refers to, as if to an old friend, as “motz.” The mild surprise comes with the use of, not oregano or rosemary, but the more pungent marjoram. If you want more herbs, pluck them from the backyard planters.
The apps are another of Zaaz’s experimental nexuses. I’d give a thumbs-up to the broccoli knots heaped with ricotta and herbs, and a thumbs-down to the bulgogi roll, which once featured wads of cold short rib with coleslaw and pea shoots, but has since been eighty-sixed from the menu. Best of all is a starter that has appeared in the past couple of weeks: fried motz ($8). A half-dozen wontons stuffed with green onions and cheese arrive sided with a tequila-laced dipping sauce. If your local Chinese carryout had invented these, maybe it wouldn’t be in danger of extinction.