Old Country Charlie

05/11/2011 4:00 AM |

Verde Coal Oven Pizza

254 Irving Avenue, Bushwick

Rating: 4 out of 5 L’s

It’s the middle of the day at Verde Coal Oven Pizza: men stroll in like they have all the time in the world and greet one another with kisses on the cheek; warm, buttery light spills through the windows; the waitress offers me more cannoli. Life is good. If Keith McNally of the Balthazar empire could bottle and sell this, he would.

Located deep in Bushwick, this glowing ember of a restaurant stands out among the concrete blocks stretching along the border with Queens. Although its prices are low for artisanal pizza (pies are $7 to $15, with toppings up to $3 each), the neighborhood might not be ready for it. That doesn’t seem to faze Sicilian-born owner Charlie Verde, who owns the building and seems to operate the business as a labor of love. His hospitality and attention to detail are nearly fanatic, and one wonders what he might have done with his life had he not discovered the more-than-century-old coal-fired oven in the section of the basement that extends under the sidewalk, causing steam to rise from it at street level. A note on the menu explains that the building was once a bakery that provided “fresh bread daily to turn-of-the-century Italian immigrants of the neighborhood.”

The neighborhood’s immigrants now come from elsewhere, but the oven once again fires up Italian breads used on two simple sandwiches (veggie and mortadella, both $7), from ciabatta to perfectly moist focaccia. The eleven pizzas on the menu are on the small side, about ten inches across, with a hearty crust that stands up well to toppings, including Lucky’s beefsteak tomatoes and two types of mozzarella (used for balance, since one is more watery than the other, we’re told).

I prefer a crust that’s a little more charred and flaky—the oven could have been hotter—but the subtle smoky flavor from the coal fire lends a delicate depth to the dough. Our request to add cheese-and-parsley sausage to a simple margherita pie of tomato, mozzarella, basil and olive oil was met cheerfully, and its juicy snap enlivened every bite. The plentiful kick of the Diavolo pie topped with hot sopressata and basil olive oil was almost overpowered by a generous sprinkling of chili flakes.

And those cannoli? I would make a special trip back to Verde just for a single bite of the cinnamon-tinged, slightly tangy ricotta filling—and I wish I could bring my Sicilian grandma back from the dead to join me. She’d feel right at home in this simple and quaint place with its wall-mounted crucifix, exposed brick, bright marble, and generously sized upholstered chairs. While it’s still BYO, pick up a bottle of wine at nearby Vinos en Wyckoff (150 Wyckoff Ave), and settle in for a trip back in time.