Although we had missed Lucali’s in April, our May adventure took us to Roberta’s in Bushwick and not back to Carroll Gardens. Our plan was to celebrate Karen’s birthday, so the choice was hers. It was Roberta’s she wanted, so it was Roberta’s she got! And it was quite an adventure to get there. Unlike the other pizza places we’ve visited this year, Roberta’s is not a “local” place; rather, it’s a place whose main clientele is made up of people who travel to Bushwick specifically to try their most excellent food.
You have to really want to get there, and it’s best to get there early. Even on a weeknight, the place was packed by 7:30. The friendly, funky folks only deal in cash.
We were all struggling with the woes of life, but Joan still managed to rock an adorable spring dress, Karen had on a lovely necklace that matched an adorable blouse, and I am enjoying my first summer as a “thin” person who can comfortably wear tank tops without feeling too exposed. It’s no small feat to look good when you feel bad, so color me impressed. Despite crankiness of all kinds, it was hard not to feel incredibly lucky to be on another pizza adventure.
What we ate
Spicy Mixed Olives
Bibb Lettuce (dried cherry vinaigrette, gorgonzola, roasted walnuts)
Margherita: mozzarella, tomato, basil
R.P.S.: tomato, mozzarella, sopressata, roasted red peppers
After our April attempt was thwarted (venue closed for vacation), we decided to double up later in the year. Karen recommended this venue in Bushwick, a section of Brooklyn I almost never visit. This particular outing was remarkable for a few reasons: 1) it was a belated celebration of Karen’s birthday, 2) we chose a non-weekend day, and 3) it was freaking hot – I’m talking August heat! It was also an occasion to which we all brought some collateral baggage – work drama, traffic jam frustration, a twisted ankle. Add a non-air conditioned venue and no one felt like adding alcohol to the mix. In fact, this was the most scaled-down event so far – one salad and a dish of olives to start, two pies, and one dessert that was not shared (by mutual consent). Of course, we ordered a margherita (the standard by which all pizzas are judged) and a second pie with soppresata. The arrival of the pies elicited sighs of pleasure, followed by a deeply satisfying first bite. My initial reaction – the margherita had a better balance of sauce and cheese and dough than I had tasted on previous occasions. The sauce, in particular, really stood out for me. The crust was satisfyingly thin and crisp the way I prefer it, although it did not have enough flavor on its own to make me want to devour it naked. The sopressata on the second pie was almost too salty – a little more spiciness would have added some complexity to the taste. However, that did not stop me from eating the last slice even though I was pretty full by that time. I was also extremely hot, sweaty and had a throbbing ankle, so that is probably what I will remember long after I’m able to recall the taste of the pizza. Sometimes it’s not only about the pizza.
After vowing, in the same voice that Scarlett O’Hara uses in “Gone with the Wind,” that I will NEVER cross the Brooklyn Bridge between the hours of 4:00 and 8:00 again, I was very happy to meet my girlfriends for our delayed pizza night. I wasn’t even daunted by the fact that I couldn’t find the front door without help. I arrived late, tired, dragged down by problems at work and with a terrible headache, so Roberta’s had some serious work to do.
The first good thing I noticed is the way the space is organized with long tables that allow for chatting between groups of diners. We shared a long table with a couple of guys, which made it a lot easier for me to ask whether or not the Shaker Pie was worth ordering. The vibe is a mix of laid back but organized, and I suspect that on cooler days it’s quite pleasant to eat in the garden. The heat and a pounding headache made me opt for water rather than wine, but the wine list looks promising, so when I go back (and I plan to), I look forward to trying it out.
I don’t eat olives, so I was happy to order the salad. Bibb lettuce may replace arugula as my favorite salad green. Okay, it won’t, but it comes in a close second. This salad was perfect. The dried cherry vinaigrette was tart and coated each part of the lettuce without being overwhelming. I hate pools of salad dressing. While the salad was light (it’s a salad; that’s it’s job!) it also had enough substance to feel like a meal. It was the best part of my experience. I liked the pizza quite a bit, and I think the cheese was distributed perfectly so that each bite of each pie was a blend of wonderful sauce, cheese, and goodness. My main quibble was with the crust. The consistency was perfect but it lacked a certain kind of presence. It seemed more like a vehicle for the toppings than part of the pizza, which is too bad because I could tell that it wanted to be part of the pie. I’m thinking that it a little bit of sea salt would have made it perfect.
No one wanted to share dessert! Let’s just all sit with that for a minute (well, I’m used to Karen wanting her own dessert, but I can usually count on Joan for a bite or two). It was just me, the Shaker Pie, and a fork. The Meyers lemons used for the custard needed a bit of zing, but you couldn’t ask for fresher tasting pie or flakier crust. I just think a pinch of something (perhaps nutmeg?) would have given the dessert more personality.
I wouldn’t race back to Roberta’s, but, if someone else was driving I’d definitely go back to try out the rest of the menu…and the wine…and the garden.
Alas, pizza alone does not create joy.
It was the middle of a very difficult week for me when we hit Roberta’s, and my spirits were low. Neither the charm of the low-key rustic interior — with long communal wood tables and a slightly rumpled-looking clientele tucked away inside a nondescript, industrial looking low cement building in the nowheresville of Bushwick – nor the charm of my upbeat and decidedly more fashion-forward companions could do much to uplift me or draw my conversation out. And that’s a shame, because Roberta’s is really very good.
This pizza reminded me that in fact, it doesn’t have to be all about the crust after all. Thin-crusted and adequately crispy on the edges, this pie was saucier and cheesier than any of the other brick oven varieties we’ve had in our journey so far. The mozzarella and the marinara melded together and spread unapologetically over the top, with a mild tomato flavor punctuated by a few pungent bits of basil. Each piece even flopped over in the middle the way a nice, wet slice joint wedge will do. I enjoyed the sopressata pie, but wished we’d opted for the spicy version of the meat, which would have given it some much-needed zing. Still it was tasty and satisfying, more real pizza than cuisine, slightly upscale but still saying: ‘Hey, you, you’re a New Yorker — you know how we do.’
Some spicy green and red olives to start – and they were spicy — and a Diet Coke (oh the shame) were my only accompaniments for this meal, making it a simpler, lighter, and dare I say quicker than usual meal for us, which was just fine since it was the hottest day of the year thus far but they’d decided not to turn the air conditioning on yet. It’s probably impolite of me to mention the bill since my companions very generously treated me in celebration of my recent birthday, but Roberta’s seems very reasonably priced. But while my taste buds were pleased and my tummy pleasantly full, my heart still left a bit heavy. Next time, I’ll remember to bring my own joy.