Among the tags, sketches, and declarations of love permanently scrawled in Sharpie on Bodega Pizza’s bathroom walls, one customer’s optimistic sentiment reads, “This proves that gentrification comes & goes but culture remains forever.” It’s a contemplative assessment of the lively pie parlor, a longtime dream of Washington Heights resident Jose Morales.
Until the beginning of this year, the L-shaped room was home to Apt. 78, Morales’s boisterous nightlife venue and community hub that ultimately proved unsustainable. He gave the façade a mustard-yellow makeover and installed a custom-built wood-burning oven. In late June, it re-emerged as another kind of cultural nucleus, albeit one that centers around simple, modestly priced Neapolitan pizzas rather than impromptu dance-offs.
With help from Rome native Francesco Bentrovato, head pizzaiolo Eziquiel Marquez (most recently of 10 Devoe in Williamsburg) bakes a selection of ten-inch signature pizzas ($12–$16) with occasionally winking names, like the Jay Z–themed “Picasso Baby” pie, with wide flaps of pepperoni, or the “Summer of 86,” a nod to Mets fans that lays broccoli rabe over spicy pork sausage and cherry tomatoes. These aren’t archetypally puffy and airy pies, however. The kitchen keeps crusts cracker-thin, and Bodega Pizza’s sweet sauce is the standard margherita’s most prominent feature. In a concession to contemporary diets, you can order whole-wheat or gluten-free crusts, and the menu lists two vegan pizzas (opt for the Vegan 2.0, which eschews fake Daiya cheese).
New York City will never have enough pizzerias. But while classic slice joints proliferate in these upper reaches of Manhattan, Bodega Pizza’s Neapolitan wares are a timely and welcome addition to the neighborhood. So while ordinarily I might be loath to recommend an interborough trek here from a pie haven like Staten Island, Bodega Pizza’s fun and personalized take on this populist staple roundly merits the trip. Of Marquez and Bentrovato’s fifteen char-dappled options, the pies with the most involved recipes are the best place to start. Chief among them are the “Tribe Called Fresh,” decorated with caramelized onions, sweet Italian sausage, and pepperoni, and the “Paid n Full,” a funky number slapping together punchy gorgonzola, prosciutto, peppery arugula, and thick shavings of parmesan.
Then there are the “Dongan Place” and the “Feliz Cumbe,” two pizzas that nod to the neighborhood and might be the duo’s strongest efforts. The former, named for an elbow-shaped street near Fort Tryon Park, melds a piquant combination of tomato, mozzarella, ricotta, parmesan, soppressata, roasted red peppers, garlic, and basil. The latter pie balances Latin and American flavors and approximates the love child of pineapple-packed Hawaiian pizza and buche’ perico, a Dominican-corn and smoked-pork stew. Who knew that the sweetness of corn and pineapple could be so complementary?
Aside from pizza, the pickings are somewhat slim, and most feel like variations on a doughy theme. The restaurant’s brief “bites” section is where you’ll find bulky, oven-warmed panini filled with bold pairings like broccoli rabe, sausage, and asiago, or vegetables amped up with roasted garlic. There are also savory calzones to dip in cups of marinara. They hit the table burnished and overstuffed; a gooey mess of mozzarella and ricotta lies inside. Two salads offer diners their only reprieve from cheese and carbs. Neither is particularly revelatory, but a modest $9 gets you an arugula salad brimming with sliced pears and crumbles of gorgonzola. To drink, there are mason jars of tart sangria and a dozen mostly domestic craft beers on tap.
The lone dessert, a crispy, crescent-shaped calzone filled with chocolate-hazelnut spread and topped with a scoop of ice cream, is stealthily listed among the rest of the dishes (it appears above the salads and below the other calzones, for some reason), though fair warning: It’s very sweet. The restaurant’s walls, meanwhile, are lined with groceries like cereal, beans, and coffee, which Morales tells the Voice will be for sale starting next month. Until then, you’ll have to settle for tantalizing single installments of Bodega Pizza’s individually wrapped candies, which are pulled from a glass display case overlooking the bar and accompany each check.
4455 Broadway, 917-675-7707