Good thing I didn't write this over a month ago and our blog hasn't been down for 3 weeks. Oh, wait... I did, and it has. But finally, here are my thoughts on Kesté, a place I'm pretty darn crazy about. Over the past couple of months, it's become one of my most consistent standbies in the city. Pictures, if you're into that sort of thing, are on the blog
. (Call me stupid, but I just don't know how to post them here.)
I don’t watch the news. I read the newspaper only for the food section on Wednesdays. I’ve never followed the stock market, and the only economic crisis I’ve experienced lately was coming up a quarter short upon reaching into my pocket to pay for a macchiato the other day. I had to settle for an espresso.
I won’t settle when it comes to pizza. Some might call me a simpleton and others, a snob. But I will go to my grave believing that [a] pizza is one of the finest foods on this planet, and [b] 99% of what is sold under that name is garbage. This article, however, is not about bashing the majority (shoot me an e-mail if you want that, and trust me, you don’t). It’s about recognizing one of the finest pizzerias not just in New York or the US or outside of Italy, but in my opinion one of the best anywhere.
It is called Kesté and I have gone 6 times… in the past 10 days. That dedication has nothing to do with journalistic thoroughness. I knew after one visit that the pizzeria’s Neapolitan moniker was right — “this is it”. And I could write a book about the first bite.
It was from a pizza margherita. My knife brushed against a charred spot on the rim of the crust, knocking a fine black powder to either side before I sawed softly through an airy pocket. I cut my way an inch or two toward the center, collecting a molten glob of mozzarella and a partially singed basil leaf along the way. Coming back out to the edge, I hit a slick of tomato sauce as vibrant red as the fruits must have been on the vine. The dough in the middle was thin and pliable. Even with sparingly applied toppings, etiquette suggested a fork and gravity demanded it. I stabbed.
Immediately I burned my mouth — temporary agony that gave way to lasting pizza pleasure. My front teeth squeaked through the mozzarella, so milky that each time I chewed it seemed as much a warm beverage as cheese. The sauce — a smooth purée of raw tomatoes — was sweet and fresh tasting, with none of that caramelized tomato paste flavor that cooked sauces sometimes have. The basil was like a green potato chip, shattering with each bite into 1,000 pieces that tasted of carbon and chlorophyll. The crust was almost playful — I pulled and it tugged back, I pushed and it bounced. Together, it all made for a marvelous mouthful.
I glanced around the room, wanting to share my delight with someone, anyone. My eyes met those of Roberto Caporuscio, the pizzaiolo. He smiled. He knew.
His pizzas, he told us, bake for under 60 seconds. There were just 2 of us eating lunch that day, yet we ordered 3 more pizzas and a calzone. Either amused by our gluttony or wishing to test its limits, Mr. Caporuscio sent us 4 desserts as well.
I’m a stickler for tradition even in cultures to which I do not ostensibly belong, so the second pie had to be a marinara — just tomato, oregano, and garlic… basta. Both herb and allium spoke up without yelling, and the combination was somehow assertive and restrained at once. It was also delicious. And to be honest, I really did not want to share with Adam. Fairness at the table is overrated.
Next came the mast’nicola, a pie that pre-dates the introduction of tomatoes into the Italian pantry. Translucent slices of lardo melted and crisped in the oven heat. Pecorino romano and basil kept the pork fat company, lest it get lonely on the crust all by itself. There was no tomato sauce, no cheese, and no need for either. Minimally topped, the mast’nicola confirmed what the two previous pies both suggested — the crust at Kesté is just unbelievable.
We could — and probably should — have stopped there, but Adam had the sinister idea to order a calzone (a ripieno on the menu here). He was “just curious”, he said. A “little taste” was supposedly all he wanted. I was hesitant, but the sneaky bastard asked for it when I made a quick pit stop in the bathroom.
In retrospect, I support that decision 100%, because this particular calzone turned out to be simply the best I’ve ever had. Each bite uncovered new treasures. One time came a creamy mound of fresh ricotta. The next, strings of mozzarella stretched like telephone wires from my mouth to the plate. Short strips of peppery salame were buried here and there. And sometimes, the stars would align such that I got all of these ingredients at once. Magical moments, those. And, goodness, I haven’t even mentioned the smoky char on the crust or the sweet magma-like tomato sauce painted on the outside of the dough. But then I would just be taunting you. Suffice it to say, this thing was basically perfect.
Mr. Caporuscio approached our table and suggested we have another pie. I laughed awkwardly, hoping assuming he wasn’t serious. He smiled deviously and said “salsiccia e friarielli”. That’s the last thing I remember before the overdose.
I wasn’t wild about the salsiccia e friarielli (sausage and a vegetable similar to broccoli rabe). The crust, as usual, was otherworldly. But smoked mozzarella is just not my thing, especially when it is this heavily smoked. And I don’t think I’ll be joining the facebook group for these toppings anytime soon, either. But it’s not you, Roberto, it’s me.
The desserts were fine. Tiramisù and tiramisù alla fragola (strawberry) were moist but not soggy. A panna cotta was firmer than I might’ve liked, but flavorful nonetheless. A slice of torta caprese — a dense, fudge-y chocolate and walnut cake spiked usually with strega but here with limoncello — nearly killed us. Actually, I’m pretty sure the four pizzas and a calzone killed us, but I’m just trying to put the blame elsewhere since those were so freaking wonderful. Anyway, thank you, Roberto, for the desserts… I think.
I’ve since tried nearly everything on the menu. The regina margherita, with grape tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella, is a personal favorite. The acidity of the tomato skins in the sauce really makes it pop. A similar pie, made with burrata instead of mozzarella, has been available on some weekends. But that one, I must warn you, is a pie to be shared — either on the medical history forms you fill out before your next check-up, or preferably, with at least one other hungry dining companion. The prosciutto e rucola pizza is exceptional, and the eponymous Kesté (the same combination, but with tomato and pecorino subbed in for the mozzarella) is not too shabby either, though I still prefer the milkiness of the cheese on the former.
Even the appetizers are worth ordering . The rosette vegetariane are like classic New York garlic knots — only they taste of real olive oil, not margarine, and they come stuffed with roasted vegetables. And the battilocchio, a kind of elongated flatbread topped with different things every day, never fails. There’s also a pizza alla nutella available for dessert. I’d like to pretend that I’ve never had the appetite to try it, but of course, I have. And of course, it’s delicious.
I really liked Kesté right from the start. I loved it, actually. And I wanted to share it with the world. But the gastroenterological hurdles we encountered that first day I would not wish upon anyone. Forfeiture of dinner reservations, failure to budge from a prone position on the couch, and semi-permanent loss of appetite are all possible side effects. Please consider consulting your doctor if I invite you to lunch at Kesté. But please, please go.