Depending on your outlook, New Yorkers have a way of either improving an already good thing (cultural attitudes about smoking and trans fat, public parks) or fetishizing it beyond ridiculousness (pretty much anything else).
At a Midwestern county fair, a deep-fried Snickers bar may set you back a dollar. In the West Village, one could order the same delicacy, though it would arrive wrapped in Artisanal bacon and paired with seasonal, locally grown arugula for $25. And they wonder why they’re hated.
The same could be said for New York’s pizza. The thought of a “New York slice” reminds me of my first visits to the city, wandering around the East Village, drunk, inhaling triangular globs of grease and flour-dusted crust from a paper plate. Those slices still exist (and some can still be enjoyed for a dollar ), but the New York pizza of today occupies a rarefied air of dictates from Naples, fussy toppings and chin-stroking discussions on the burnt index of the crust. Why complicate the perfect street food so easily enjoyed on the go by both inebriated frat guys and stylish Italians on scooters? Because we can.
It’s through that lens we look at Co. (because who has time to type out Company in a text message), Jim Lahey’s recently opened Chelsea pizzeria. Lahey, of Sullivan Street Bakery, has extended his “no-knead” dough to the pizza arena to great fanfare, as well some derision. On the plus side, the pizza is excellent: creative, delicious and conversation-sparking. The downside? It’s expensive; perhaps prohibitively so if your pizza budget is less than, say, $50 a week. Somewhere an accountant is laughing at the mark up.
Critics have also taken aim at the space, a woodsy, communal echo chamber that seeks to join rustic, big family Italian dinner with minimalist upscale bistro. How much you’ll enjoy this room depends on your comfort-level with sharing menu tips with other customers, screaming to be heard over the din, and sucking your gut in to squeeze through the aisles on the way out to avoid bumping into a thin person who you may or may not be a celebrity. A small bar area offers a thoughtful selection of beer and wine — no corks, apparently — to soften the wait (no reservations, thank you); on our recent visit we hunkered down with a growler of Six Point Sweet Action (possibly my favorite beer) even if the “the growler is cheaper than four pints” sales pitch was a bit aggressive.
What about the ’za? The menu is quick to point out that your pizza may “not always be round,” which is either a self-conscious tactic to take your eye off the ball (“I can’t believe this pizza cost $20, but at least it’s not round!”) or a warning to someone who accidentally wandered into Co. thinking it was California Pizza Kitchen. That caveat out of the way, the pizza was uniformly excellent. Served as four-slice “personal” pies, these little buggers are great for sharing with a small group or crushing as a solo act.
Our neighbor to the right, a gregarious sort, derided the Margherita and praised the Popeye we ordered. The Margherita arrived first and impressed, but it was only with the arrival of more complex pies that I understood why it might have been so quickly dismissed despite its quality. The Popeye put to shame any notions of the overly-garlicky “white” Popeye pies you may remember; here wilted spinach was piled atop a mix of buffalo mozzarella (from Di Palo’s on the Lower East Side), Gruyère, and Pecorino cheese. The cauliflower pie featured finely-chopped florets with green olives, béchamel, and blend of buffalo mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. Our fourth pie — the Flambe — also featured béchamel, buffalo mozzarella and Parmesan, this time with a topping of lardon that had the vegetarians among us considering a jump onto the meat wagon (in case the mere thought of eating ham has Karmic implications, it should be mentioned that Co.’s salads were also excellent).
Like a typical New Yorker, Lahey does try to re-invent the pizza wheel a little more than may be necessary, eschewing the typical trappings of everyone’s favorite food and, in the process, alienating some of both the Napoletani purists and those who think pizza should be simple street or bar food. In putting some aside preconceived notions about what a pizza should be, along with a healthy portion of your paycheck, Co. is worth a visit.
— Brett Essler