Centuries before bread-baking Neapolitans first thought to futz around with tomatoes and mozzarella, pinsa, pizza’s predecessor, was born in the hearths of Ancient Rome. Kneaded into wonky ovals and topped with herbs or garum, an anchovy-based fish sauce, the sturdy multigrain flatbreads were once so ubiquitous that the poet Virgil wove them into his epic The Aeneid. Modern-day Romans continue to enjoy the stuff, and so will anyone who hits up Camillo, an utterly appealing trattoria in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens that devotes the heart of its menu to this edible history lesson.
Sibling to Clinton Hill’s cozy, Tuscan-focused Locanda Vini e Olii, Camillo opened last September in an equally warm and modishly rustic space along Nostrand Avenue. As a nod to that region, the restaurant takes its name from Count Camillo Negroni, who allegedly invented his namesake drink in Tuscany’s capital, Florence, in the early 20th century. Here, they offer eight varieties of the tipple, all mixed with various spirits and bitters for $10 each. Washed down alongside an admirably crisp fritto misto ($16) of vegetables and sage, the one that stirred together mezcal with Cappelletti and Cocchi Americano Bianco was an eye-opener.
The dining room is done up in a well-trodden albeit relentlessly charming amalgam of exposed brick, tiled floors, and wood-paneled ceilings, an environment that’s as amenable to first dates as it is to group dinners. Good thing, then, that chef-partner Michele Baldacci’s paddle-shaped pinsas ($12-$20) are portioned into easily manageable wedges in the manner of Midwestern tavern-cut pies, making them perfect for sharing. They achieve their crunchy yet densely chewy crusts and slightly nutty savor thanks to a proprietary dough made from a blend of rice, wheat, and soy flours that’s left to ferment for upward of 48 hours. The result is crunchier and heftier than your typical pillowy-edged Neapolitan rounds, falling somewhere between Rome’s two most popular styles – thin crust, and the scissor-snipped, focaccia-like pizza al taglio. Camillo’s pinsa crusts are durable enough to withstand an onslaught of toppings, as in the capricciosa, a classic from 1950s Rome, which combines artichokes, prosciutto, mushrooms, and olives.
Remember our old pal garum? Although you won’t find any of the primordially funky fish condiment here, one of the best pinsas marries buffalo milk mozzarella and oregano-spiked tomato sauce to Baldacci’s marinated anchovies, which lend ample bursts of brine and richness to almost every bite. Another mollifies the bitterness of broccoli rabe with tender nuggets of pork sausage, while the pinsa with wild mushrooms evokes forest campfires with fresh oregano and swaths of smoked buffalo scamorza, a low-moisture cheese with notes of burnt hay. Can’t decide between a red (sauce) or white (sauceless) pie? The Romana cleverly splits the difference by paying homage to two of the city’s most well-known pastas, amatriciana and cacio e pepe. Pecorino Romano cheese binds the two sides, with one mingling spicy tomato sauce and pork jowl, the other black pepper and sage.
The rest of the menu’s highlights exceed by keeping things simple: hearty butternut squash soup pungent with sage ($9); almost-falling-apart porchetta ($14) roasted with herbs, served salumi-style with plump caperberries and sharp mustard; and pastas like soft semolina gnocchi ($12/$14 with sausage) or supple baked cannelloni ($16) blissfully stuffed with artichokes, béchamel, and shreds of roast lamb. The food menu tops out at a reasonable $22 for entrée-size dishes that are almost poetically pared down to their essentials. Local catch like sea bass and grey mullet get cooked in parchment with squash and tarragon, while provincial hunks of roasted goat scented with rosemary and white wine are mounded over a bed of bitter braised chicory to dizzying effect.
Desserts ($8) reach lesser heights by comparison, though there’s plenty to love about breaking into the chocolate shell of cocoa-dusted tartufo. Or you might opt for an affogato ($6) of Italian espresso poured over the same vanilla ice cream the kitchen plunks next to golden-brown pistachio olive oil cake, which you can turn into a low-grade speedball by adding a shot of sambuca or sweetly bitter house-made amari. A nightcap fit for the noble European boozehound who inspires this place.
1146 Nostrand Avenue
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 26, 2018