For all the efforts by food luminaries to educate our national palate, Americans still have largely uncomplicated, nostalgic appetites. Thanks to the work of Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, I haven’t been this aware of vegetables since I was forced to finish mine before being excused from the table. But even with our patchwork microcosm of cultures and cuisines, New York City shares in these predilections. Rising-star restaurateur Nick Morgenstern spent this past spring captivating the city with an ice cream parlor, so it’s fitting — and fortuitous — that come fall, he set his sights on revamping the New York pizzeria.
At GG’s (511 East 5th Street, 212-687-3641), chef and Staten Island native Bobby Hellen mans a classic deck oven that churns out gorgeous New York-style pizza with inspired toppings. He and beverage director Gabriel Richter lugged it to the restaurant themselves, plugging it into the renovated kitchen of Morgenstern’s defunct but much-loved Goat Town. Its installation has paid off. A retro-revival, Hellen’s square “grandma” pie yields a moderate chew and a sauce more herb-stocked than a Colorado dispensary. It threatens to taste muddy, but aged mozzarella — a hallmark of old-guard pizzerias — stands up to the heady mixture. Curled, charred pepperoni completes the equation.
Nearly every pizza I ordered at GG’s was a home run. The “1986,” an ode to the magical championship season for Hellen’s beloved Mets, sports spicy soppressata, pickled peppers, and tangy fennel agrodolce. Recalling Frank Pepe’s clam-topped pies in New Haven, the “Capo the Great” marries littlenecks, cockles, and razor clams with mushrooms, rosemary, whole cloves of garlic, and lemony garlic confit on a white pie; the resulting earth/brine balance carries more weight than mere crust can seemingly hold. It’s such attention to detail that feels new and refreshing, much in the way Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream obsesses over its frozen treats in order to develop interesting takes on the genre. This team’s not the first to modernize and class up our city’s favorite peasant food. GG’s is just doing it better than anybody else. Hellen’s handmade blood sausage, which tops the “Ebony and Ivory” along with chiles and sliced garlic, is another example that showcases those strengths. Yet another: A saucer of olive oil and delectable house-made ricotta accompanies every pie. “We want people to finish their crusts,” our waiter explains. I’d eat every bite regardless, but I’ve never been one to turn down free cheese, especially when it’s this good.
At night GG’s welcomes a raucous crowd that squeezes in along the forest-green banquettes and toasts one another with Richter’s inventive and gentle-on-the-wallet cocktails. The subtle touch of orange-blossom water flavors the margarita-like “Let Them Drink,” while “The Cobra” melds seasonally appropriate applejack with licorice-flavored R. Jelinek fernet and apple cider. A group of four “session” cocktails with lower alcohol levels all hover under $10, while regular-strength mixed drinks cost no more than $11. Richter’s list of largely European and American wines offers a number of bargains, making the drinks as accessible as the food.
Beyond pizzas, Hellen and Morgenstern have pulled from their experiences working in fine dining to round out the menu with dishes that are homey yet refined. Luscious and tender, crisp lamb-neck meatballs pull from Spain with dollops of piquillo-pepper sour cream. A salad of dandelion greens tastes nearly as heavy, coated in brown-butter vinaigrette and strewn with slips of Gruyère-like Pleasant Ridge cheese. Tasting Hellen’s deck-roasted foods — from baked whole-wheat lasagna with mushrooms and pesto to a daily changing meat (lamb leg, on the nights we dined) to a vegetarian entrée of winter squash and beets covered in sour cream — made me want to storm into my neighborhood pizzeria and demand that its staff up its game accordingly.
Meals end with (what else?) Morgenstern’s ice cream, though you’ll be hard-pressed to find any of the flagship shop’s wackier flavors. Here it’s just salted caramel, chocolate, or vanilla. Not a problem when scoops get pressed between two fudgy chocolate cookies for an ice cream sandwich.
When all’s said and done, a pizzeria’s slice might be its make-or-break. Let’s just say I’m smitten. Hellen, who can be seen in the semi-open kitchen wearing his Mets hat almost all the time, lets his proverbial hair down during the day. He works every lunch and sees that time as his opportunity to play around with daily specials, which on one excursion yielded a daredevil slice of white pie topped with brussels sprouts and a giant expanse of chicken-liver mousse. Make no mistake: No one should ever recommend a $4-plus slice lightly. But should the opportunity for a leisurely midday meal arise, I’ll bet my hat there’s no better lunch deal than GG’s special: A slice and one of Richter’s session cocktails — say, the “Quiet American,” a take on an Americano, made with robust, beet-infused vermouth — will set you back a grand total of $10. If you insist on an even cheaper date, opt for a short beer ($7) or a soda ($6) in lieu of the liquor.