The other night, Craig and I were craving a good pizza and rather than deal with the grumpy service at Sam’s or the eternal waits at Lucali’s, we walked down to South Brooklyn Pizza, a nice new neighborhood addition for bubbly hand-tossed pies. We walked through the narrow bar and found it pretty busy for a frigid Monday night, and spoke with the host about sitting down for dinner. “Sorry, it’s gay night on Mondays,” the host, a young guy in his 20s, told us with a smile. I thought for a moment he was kicking us out because we weren’t gay, but that was not the case. “You’re welcome to stay, but we don’t serve pizza on Gay Night, only booze,” he explained, nodding to the bar, crowded with guys.
We were disappointed as we were craving one of their pies, but more than that, we were quite perplexed. We have plenty of gay friends who enjoy pizza, and (gasp!) on Mondays too. In fact, many of them live in Chelsea, and go about enjoying a hell of a lot of it at Jim Lahey’s new wood-washed pizza canteen called Co., where there’s no restriction on pizza and sexuality. It’s an equal opportunity pizza bar. Bi, straight, gay, no matter who you like to do, Sullivan Street Bakery founder Jim Lahey’s beautifully misshapen pies are yours for the eating.
This is not to say you will have an easy time getting access to them. Co. (pronounced Company, as its outdoor sign says) is a mob scene anytime after 6:30pm. There’s good reason, after all, because the pizzas are terrific (more on this shortly), but this means you’ll be waiting at the rather small blond wooded, Ikea-esque bar for anywhere between 15 minutes to an hour or more, to sink your teeth into one of Lahey’s outstanding pies. Some things are worth the wait. These pies, like true love, are one of them.
There are things on Lahey’s concise bread-centric menu, however, that are not worth the wait. All of the salads ($7 each), from a forgettable collection of chopped radicchio to the watery butter lettuce with pumpkin seeds and butternut squash, to the remarkably bland escarole with lemon, anchovies, lemon and olive oil, fall into this “why bother?” category. I’ve rarely found a collection of such listless and lifeless greens. They lack seasoning or signs of any particular care. Ignore them.
Luckily, this is where the disappointment starts and ends at Co., other than the cramped quarters and the eardrum piercing noise level. The restaurant’s design, while pleasing and convivial, is truly an ode to hard surfaces, from the planks of blond oak that line the walls, to the poured concrete floor, the white lacquer deuces that line the far wall and the rustic wooden communal tables that fill the center of the room. There’s not a noise-absorbing textile to be found in this bustling room, which means that conversations ricochet around the place like crazed spinning tops.
Tables are also jammed so close together (and puffy coats and oversized purses so plentiful) that even my size 4 neighbors had trouble slipping between them to reach the polished wood benches that serve as banquettes. So, comfort and conversation may be challenging at peak times, but I will say that the servers do their best to stay on top of their tables and keep things running smoothly despite the sometimes chaotic atmosphere.
Now, onto the good news, which is, well, (almost) everything else.
While you may think that you should skip the section called “Toasts” since you’ll be having your fair share of pizza for dinner, I recommend going there. The toasts ($3) are wonderful, and they’re really more about the grand toppings than the slice of soft grilled bread that supports them. They come one per order, but they are big enough to share with one good friend. The eggplant is mashed into a soft, rich spread heavy with herbs and olive oil, but the red pepper is truly the star of this category (though chicken liver is a nice runner up), with velvety red strips of roasted red peppers tossed with a hit of chiles and shower of fat salty capers for flavor punch that’s completely addictive.
If you are trying to store up on carbs like a camel does water, Lahey also serves a quarter loaf of pane di commune (a handmade rustic loaf) for $3, or his justly famous pizza Bianca topped with coarse sea salt and olive oil ($4). Either can be matched up with a collection of thinly sliced affetati: finocchiona from Columbus Ohio, Sopressata from Long Island City, and Prosciutto di San Daniele from Emilia Romagna, or cheeses—Mozzarella from Campania, Pecorino from Tuscany, La Serena fro Spain, and more. The meats and cheeses are $5 each, and a mixed platter will run you $22. But if you just want some butter with your bread, it doesn’t come free. It comes from Vermont, and it will cost you $2. Want to dip your bread into some olive oil? It comes from Chile and a pour of it will also cost you $2. Not sure how I feel about this, but my hunch is I don’t feel good about it. Pad the cost of something else and throw in butter and olive oil if you must. This pricing made me feel nickel and dimed.
The crowning glory of Co. is its pies, some round, some oval, some in a blurry shape in between the two not yet named in the world of geometry or otherwise. Shape is of no import to Jim Lahey’s world of pizza and quite frankly it is of little consequence to mine either. He could shape his pies into trapezoids or hexagons and I’d still relish the opportunity to feast on them.
The joy of his pizza (each serves one, or two depending on appetite and ability to share) comes from the crust—chewy and puffy borders touched by smoke from the earthstone gas-powered oven, a thin but substantial base that holds up to the ample toppings, and an inherent salty, yeasty seasoning to the dough that would make it quite easy to eat a pie topped with nothing at all. But there are some glorious toppings to be had. Even the simplest of pies, the Margherita ($13), is special: tomatoes that taste like they’ve been plucked from a sun-warmed branch and then rubbed over the warm pizza crust with olive oil and salt, then topped with warm milky mozzarella and fresh basil.
More “advanced” pies are not too busy either, so they don’t mask the joy of the crust. I particularly liked the ham and cheese ($14), topped with oozing layers of Gruyere, pecorino and mozzarella cheese and thin sheets of prosciutto. Surprisingly, the Popeye ($17) was an all around favorite as well. Instead of mixing the spinach in with the tomatoes and cheese, Lahey’s basic base of pecorino, Gruyere and mozzarella is crowned with garlic (sometimes too much garlic) and wide charred spinach leaves that make the pie look as though it’s crowned with swatches of Elizabethan taffeta.
His take on the tarte flambé is also an irresistible button-buster thanks to a mix of lardons, caramelized onions, and béchamel combined with Parmesan and mozzarella. Ditto the Boscaiola ($17), a hearty pie spiced up with pork sausage, tomato, mushrooms, onion, chili and mozzarella. In addition to the regular roster of seven pies, Lahey always runs a special pie of the day and the one I had last time I was in was a wonderful hybrid between a pizza and salad: a tomato base cooked in the oven and then removed and topped with stracchino cheese (a fresh cow’s milk cheese from Lombardy) and piles of fluffy arugula.
While there are only two choices for dessert, they are both great. The first is a statement on how dedicated Lahey is to bread—he even puts crumbs in his dense and divine chocolate breadcrumb torte ($6). He’s also serving a bread-free selection of gelato ($3 each). But I recommend to do as Craig and I did, and have the best of both worlds: the torte, a dense and delicious chocolate slab punctuated by little textured nuggets of breadcrumbs, topped with a cool scoop of vanilla gelato ($9).
In closing, I guess I should mention that Co. is actually closed on Monday nights so there’s no pizza served then, whether you’re gay or straight.