Beginning in the autumn of 2008, residents say, a definite change came over the city of New York. The reigning preference for excess waned, and a new-found respect for simplicity and honesty rose in its stead. People starting looking for the down-to-earth, sated with the glut of slippery richness that had long prevailed. I refer, of course, to pork belly and pizza, the old and new lodestars of the city’s culinary firmament.
Changing tastes: (top) Smoked pork belly; and Margherita pizza fresh out of a wood-fired oven at Kesté in New York City. Photographs by AP, Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg
Not coincidentally, this change has occurred alongside that other major New York shift—the disintegration of Wall Street, its economic engine—but people have perhaps been too eager to tie the two trends together into a tight knot of cause and effect. Maybe there are a couple of Lehman Brothers bankers who ate pork belly for dinner every night and now have to make do with slices of mushroom-pepperoni, but let’s not overstate this.
The pizza in fashion today, after all, is not of the $1.50-a-slice (around Rs75) variety, which really can relieve burdened wallets. This being New York, it is rather the highly artisanal $25-per-pie sort, starring San Marzano tomatoes, naturally leavened dough, sea salt and imported buffalo mozzarella, put together in a wood-fired brick oven. Simple, down-to-earth flavours, yes, but not exactly assembled in a simple, down-to-earth way.
I had, truth to tell, enjoyed the Pork Belly Era. I never got around to eating it at its high temple, David Chang’s Momofuku Ko, because to reserve one of the 12 seats at the chef’s counter, I needed to submit an online request at precisely 10am (The New York Times food critic Frank Bruni found that, at 9 seconds past 10am, all seats had been taken). I did eat pork belly elsewhere, however, and I fell for its crisp, toffee-coloured skin and its grenades of salty fat that explode gloriously upon the tongue. Pork belly, in a sense, is bacon, but bacon that has gone to university, obtained a PhD, and made a terrific success of its life.
But the Pizza Era—the Neapolitan Pizza Era, if we want to be specific—isn’t terribly unpleasant either, and I ate happily at two of this new Era’s vanguards—Co. in Chelsea and Kesté in the Village. Co. is pronounced “company”, and founded as it was by an expert baker, the name harks back to the original version of the word: companis, or the breaking of bread. Co.’s bread is, thus, appropriately the highlight. The base of its pizzas is firm and crunchy without being too brittle, and its crust is blistered, slightly blackened, and wonderfully salty. Our group of three, sitting at a long communal table, ordered two 11-inch pies of four slices each—the great Popeye ($17), a spinach pizza with chewy mozzarella, sharp pecorino and milky Gruyére; and the Fennel and Sausage ($18), a crowded little kingdom ruled absolutely by the fennel. After this, I cast longing looks at the menu’s mention of the classic Neapolitan Margherita pizza, but as my friends refused to eat any more, I had to console myself with another glass of wine, a chocolate breadcrumb torte, and an espresso.
Kesté (Neapolitan for “this is it”) was voted No. 1 in New York magazine’s recent ranking of pizza parlours, beating even Una Pizza Napoletana, famed for the monkish pizza-making discipline of its owner Anthony Mangieri. Mangieri closed Una Pizza before I could get there, to move to San Francisco. But I got my Margherita at Kesté for $12, fragrant with basil and every taste in perfect balance.
It was one of those revelatory moments when your senses tell you something that your mind already knows—in this case, that simple, good bread and cheese and tomatoes can still add up to the most outstanding dish in town.