For the millionth time, if I were to eat pizza from only one place for the rest of my life, I would want that one place to be Roberta’s. I’m sure it will come up again, so apologies. The chewiness of the crust plus the inherent flavour of the crust plus the quality of and distribution of the toppings has never been off in all the times I’ve had it. I’ve had Roberta’s pizza a lot. But I want pizza more than I’m able to get out to Bushwick, and I am always up for eating pizza, so I’ve tried a number of the notable Neapolitan pizza places to find a substitute. I qualify Neapolitan because it is most in line with how I like to eat, especially when I’m by myself: sitting down at a proper table, with portions perfect for one, and the ability to have alcohol. New York may be more truly a slice town, but if I’m treating myself to dinner out, I want more than flourescent lighting and reheating. I also just prefer the chewy, lightly charred crust of Neapolitan style, or if we’re going to get nerdy, neo-Neapolitan style.
Anyway, there was a period when I was going to lots of movies at the IFC Center or Film Forum in the West Village, and Keste was both highly praised and convenient to a post-flick pizza. I fell hard. The crust has some heft so it’s not too soupy or soft in the middle, it’s got great chew and flavour, and while the toppings are less creative than Roberta’s as they are largely based on traditional Italian ingredients, the quality is good and the combinations work nicely. And thus it’s become my comfy, reliable runner up.
My go-to pizza is the del Rel, a white pie with mozzarella, post-oven prosciutto, basil, mushrooms, and truffle paste. I know, I know, truffle paste can be totally gross and phoney tasting, but trust me, it’s not here. There’s just a slight fungus funk, no science lab perfume. The pizza is slightly rich and mellow, but then the salty prosciutto wakes everything up. I don’t deviate often, but when I do, it’s with a red pie much simpler, like sausage or soppressata. Although on a recent visit, my friend and I went whole hog with the $25 burrata special. Upping the moisture content and dairy fat made for a much wetter pizza, which I’m undecided about, but a fun way nonetheless to indulge in Friday night free calories. I think the burrata was also housemade.
Keste is a small restaurant, but the bustle of attentive servers and pizza that takes mere minutes to cook means that turnover is quick. I’ve never waited more than maybe 30 minutes at a peak weekend dinner time. There is very little atmosphere, but the Italian accents of most of the staff and conversations around you produce enough to make it a non-issue. Wine is always serviceable, and splitting a salad (high points for the simplicity of the arugula) can actually be a really nice way to start a meal with a companion. In addition to the pizza, it is one of my favourite solo dining spots for ease of getting in, getting a proper table, and for easily escaping into a magazine with pizza and wine.
When I moved from Carroll Gardens to the Upper West Side, getting to Keste was just as easy, but the move uptown meant that I was now very close to Keste’s sister restaurant, Don Antonio by Starita. So close that I can walk for my second favourite pizza. And sit at a bar. If I had a gun to my head, I’d choose Keste over Don Antonio, but the difference is so slight that I treat them practically like the same restaurant.
I don’t know if Don Antonio is officially in Hell’s Kitchen, but it skirts the Theater District and gets a good deal of business from the associated crowds. Thus, it’s a considerably bigger restaurant, or at least feels that way because of the bar. While I do prefer sitting at a table, choosing to sit at an open spot at the bar always makes things easier. The menu is nearly identical to Keste with the exception that Don Antonio has the capability to make deep-fried Montanara-style pizzas (dough that is fried then topped and baked) and related fried appetizers. If you’ve never tried such pizza, I highly recommend you go for it at least once, even just for the novelty that Italians came up with deep-fried pizza and not Americans. When it’s done right, it’s not greasy but there is an undeniable pleasure in eating fried dough. Like at Keste, the staff at Don Antonio is still largely Italian, the atmosphere lively, the wines totally fine, and the pizzas consistent. Would I take a date there or to Keste? Never. Friends, absolutely. Because they already know how I like to shovel my pizza in and have my lips glisten with olive oil.