Keste, 271 Bleecker St, 212-243-1500
Price range: $15-$25 Rating:
With the Dow dropping and the thermometer rising, wallet-friendly pizza is back in vogue. And ambitious new pies are popping out of ovens from Chelsea Club Land to the East Village and Williamsburg. And at Keste, oven-man Roberto Caporuscio is turning out legit Neapolitan pies. His weapon of choice, which he uses to create perfect crust, is a bespoke 1,000-degree wood-burning volcanic stone and tile oven, a masterpiece, inside and out.
The 12-inch pizzas, quite dissimilar from thin-crust New York-style pizza, are airy and doughy, with a taffy pull and black-singed edges from their careful trip in the blazing fire, being turned and rotated on the superheated stone and suspended over an electric-amber flame. As for what goes on that crust, Roberto sources all his ingredients from Campania, from flour to buffalo mozzarella (which actually sounds counterproductive). The house special Keste pizza ($18), with sweet San Marzano tomato sauce, gran cru cheese, prosciutto and arugula, was gloriously overladen, with different concentrations of toppings making each bite an experience, rich enough to match its doughy fullness.
The oven was likewise used to great effect for a battilocchio del giorno ($6, toppings change daily), basically a misshapen pizza appetizer topped with commingling neon-colored spinach and red-pepper purees. There isn't much else in the way of appetizers, but Keste's fine fresh salads show their skill in picking produce. The overwrought Rustica ($8), a combo of mixed greens, prosciutto, artichoke and olive, was kept simple with a lemon and oil dressing, while the Fresca ($10), with stunning baby arugula, grape tomato and Parmigiano-Reggiano, was rounded out with stellar balsamic vinegar.
The room itself, aside from the gorgeous oven, leaves much to be desired. It's a sliver of space with terrible acoustics. But the artful black and white photos of the Old Country somehow manage to overcome base sentimentality, and our Italian waiter was one of the best I have encountered recently. His recommendation of the tiramisu ($6) was a good one, as it was an excellently prepared version of the trite Little Italy standard, and a slosh of limoncello sauce (that I requested, from a different dessert) lent some vigor. Most annoyingly, Keste is on a frustratingly tourist-trampled block — but don't worry, they're all going to John's on Bleecker instead, while we enjoy some great pizza.