Brooklyn restaurants cull, by and large, from the same design playbook. They illuminate with Edison bulbs, expose their bricks, and outfit with vintage flea-market bounty. Lea (1022 Cortelyou Road, Brooklyn, 718-928-7100), a Neapolitan restaurant and pizzeria that opened in Flatbush in December, is partially constructed from reclaimed wood, the reincarnation of a water tower that reached lumber nirvana. The corner location on Cortelyou Road in Ditmas Park lay dormant for more than two years after the IRS seized what was then home to Vox Pop Café. Its tax troubles notwithstanding, Vox was a community hub, a counterculture nexus of sorts, and a performance space, and Lea clearly has every intention of serving residents in much the same way, only with far better food and fewer run-ins with the law.
Eat around these parts enough and familiar faces will appear. Avi Shuker co-owns nearby Mimi’s Hummus with Mimi Kitani and the Castello Plan wine bar with Ben Heemskerk (who’s his partner here). The trio worked together at the Farm on Adderley, a Ditmas stalwart, and they’ve been driving forces in the neighborhood’s revival. At Lea (it’s pronounced LAY-ah), chef Daniel Soskolen, a childhood friend of Shuker’s, has put together a clever menu that branches out from Italy into a broader Mediterranean tapestry that, true to its Brooklyn roots, capitalizes on local purveyors. Fresh corn polenta was so vibrant one night that I almost had a seasonal-affect tantrum (summer can’t be over, can it?). Sweet yellow squash stuffed with onions and seasoned breadcrumbs found balance via sheep’s-milk yogurt and schug, a Middle Eastern chile paste made (in this case) with green peppers, adding a vegetal sharpness to the condiment and to the dish as a whole. (Still, $11 is pushing it for a cross-section of gourd that isn’t adorned with luxe ingredients. Even in Brooklyn.)
Those dishes can be found among the antipasti, along with salads, crostini, and other small plates. Most are winners, though a special of fresh-as-can-be Spanish mackerel tartare was missing salt in a major way. Paccheri ripieni, an Italy-meets-county-fair mash-up of breaded and fried pasta tubes filled with ricotta and basil, makes a fine first bite, even if it could use a dipping sauce. Instead you’ll have to get your lubrication from one of the bar’s seven moderately priced ($9 to $12) cocktails — perhaps the “Sophia,” in which smoky mezcal meets fruity blood-orange liqueur and Brooklyn’s own Sorel hibiscus liqueur. There are plenty of Italian amari, the bitter digestifs that are quickly becoming de rigueur, as well. The “Fredo” broke and then mended my heart with a stirring concoction of rye and a rhubarb amaro called Zucca.
Squirreled away behind the long, polished-wood bar, Lea’s custom-built Stefano Ferrara oven — a cultish furnace favored by bigwig borough pizzaiolos like Motorino and Paulie Gee’s — fires up some of Central Brooklyn’s best pizza. That’s no small statement in a section of the city that boasts what may well be the most storied pie in town, but even Di Fara’s Dom DeMarco would gawk covetously at the white-tiled dome from which chef Soskolen removes bubbly pizzas charred from their turn under flames that reach 900 degrees. Stretched into uneven rounds, Lea’s pizzas are light and chewy. They’re imperfectly perfect — and they’d better be, emerging from an oven that cost the equivalent of a year’s worth of in-state tuition.
Sausage pizza comes topped with kale, smoked ricotta, and chiles, all distributed harmoniously. Referencing the pasta dish of the same name, the “All’Amatriciana” is filigreed with thin strips of cured pork jowl and dusted with gamy Pecorino. The margherita translates the archetypal flavors of mozzarella, basil, and tomato sauce with nary a stutter. Toppings don’t go off the rails, but Soskolen grants a modicum of DIY leeway if you ask nicely, which is how a member of our party wound up with fennel fronds on his pizza. (He was instructed to add the herbs himself; the chef refused to alter any of his recipes.)
Amply spiced pastas include zesty cacio e pepe, a menu mainstay that aptly honors its triumvirate of spaghetti, chiles, and cheese. The kitchen offers two protein-focused entrées (one fish, one meat) that change weekly. When we dined, Soskolen cured a locally sourced pork chop in beet juice before grilling it over high heat to develop a masterful crust. Paired with roasted beets and the root vegetable’s greens, the chop arrived as a beastly portion, perfuming the table with equal measures sugary earthiness and smoky porcine funk.
Sleepy on weekdays, Lea, like most of the borough’s beloved restaurants, sees most of its action at brunch and dinner. The repetitive thump of house music consumed the dining room on a recent evening, supplanting the soft indie rock that tootles during daylight-hour visits. “We just got this DJ. Tonight’s our first night,” our waitress shouted over a remix of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
Soskolen handles the restaurant’s desserts, from thick and fudgy chocolate-espresso gelato to babka studded with hazelnuts. His best effort may be the pastiera, an old-school Neapolitan cake baked with bulgur wheat and ricotta cheese. Denser than cheesecake, the oval hides a trove of candied orange pieces.
It’s also available during the day, for those who prefer their sweets sans beats.
Editor’s note: We’re now running our restaurant reviews right here on the Fork in the Road blog.