Finocchio Flower Power [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]
364 Atlantic Ave, New York, NY 11217 (Map); 718-330-0888; krescendobrooklyn.com
Pizza type: Neapolitan
Oven type: Brick, wood-fired
The Skinny: Perfectly average pies don’t live up to the hype.
Price:Appetizers and salads, $7-$15; Pizzas, $13-$17; Desserts, $6-9
Hype is a devious creature. Great press can work wonders in the restaurant business; it can also build expectations fundamentally disproportionate to reality. Such was the case with our recent excursion to Krescendo. Maybe it was chef Elizabeth Falkner‘s exceptional reputation, or the excitement generated by Pete Wells’s recent two star review in The New York Times. Regardless, we walked in hoping for transcendent pizza. What we found was a good neighborhood Neapolitan joint. No more, no less.
The space is everything a neighborhood joint should be: friendly, warm, neither too big nor too loud. A bright red façade opens to a brick-walled dining room, flanked by a generous wooden bar with plenty of stools for sidling up to a glass of wine and a pie. The rear of the restaurant houses the pizza station, complete with a gold-tiled wood-fired oven on display for those who want to head back and watch the action.
But we’re more interested in what comes out of that oven, aren’t we? Let’s get the heavy-hitter out of the way first.
The cheekily-named Finocchio Flower Power ($16), the same pie that won Falkner first place in the Caputo World Pizza Championship in Naples in 2012, garnered lavish praise from Wells. Indeed, what we received had the sure-fire signs of greatness. The combination of anise-y braised fennel, chunks of juicy fennel sausage, and veiny fennel fronds makes for a subtle, layered topping. We couldn’t find any vestiges of the titular fennel flowers; then again, we didn’t pick apart the entire pie in our search.
Some may find that there’s a bit too much provolone and cream blanketing the dough, but the dish is unquestionably delicious in that fat-on-bread sort of way.
For the record, that bread—the pizza crust, that is—was good. At least, most of the time (notable exceptions in a bit). Tender and well-seasoned, it had more of an even golden-brown color than a typical leopard-spotted Neapolitan crust. Nobody would mistake it as “artfully charred,” as black-spot apologists like to call it, though it deftly passed the “is-it-still-tender-and-flavorful-even-when-cold?” test that should be a standard assay for pizzerias.
Polpette al Forno
The pizza is the best thing on the menu, which is a good thing, since we were thoroughly unimpressed with the quality of our opening courses. This was surprising to us, considering how much Wells, not to mention Vogue‘s Jeffrey Steingarten—both friends of Ed Levine and colleagues who possess trusted taste buds—had heralded that non-pizza portion of Krescendo’s menu. We can only assume that it came down to luck of the draw.
The first of our plates was the Polpette al Forno ($9). The three meatballs arrived so dry and tough that we had trouble cutting through them with the side of a fork. Under-seasoned and over-ground, they left an unpleasant taste in our mouths—literally and figuratively. The sauce, at least, was fresh, delivering some much-needed brightness and moisture to the dish.
Frittele di Baccala Con Cannellini
In the Frittele di Baccala Con Cannellini ($12), the cod and potato fritter proved light and crisp, if subtle in salt-cod flavor. Sadly, the bed of cannellini on which it perched was beyond al dente, edging into raw territory. The beans were tough enough that we pushed the plate away unfinished, hoping that the pasta and pizza would prove more rewarding. [Insert your "Californians and their crunchy vegetables" joke of choice here].
Pappardelle alla Bolognese
We found the pasta in the Pappardelle alla Bolognese ($20) to be wonderfully tender and perfectly cooked. Which made it a crying shame that the ragú was so thin that it would have better borne the title zuppa. A few token pieces of wan ground meat floating in ruddy broth does not make for a satisfying course, no matter how good those noodles are.
But enough of that; back to the pizza. As the Times proclaimed, the crusts are “exceptionally light,” though at least one of our pies had some issues achieving the “good ‘crumb structure’” mentioned. A quick look at the cornicione will demonstrate:
Do you see any holes or airiness in there?
Many folks can find typically tender and (ok, we’ll admit it) somewhat “soupy” traditional Neapolitan crusts to be too soft. Falkner’s pies ranged from tender with just a bit of sag, to outright crackery-crisp, allowing you to fold-and-hold them like a New York slice. Consistency issues aside, this may be a wisely informed decision, based on the relatively thick layers of cheese and toppings to which she’s partial. “Let the crust fit the toppings” is a good motto for pie-slingers to subscribe to.
While none of the other pies reached the heights of flavor found in the fennel pie, many showed promise, if a bit of poor engineering. It’s the kind of food that is just good enough that you wish the chef would make that final push to take it to brilliant.
For instance, in our Bianca ($15), the two bits of kale that managed to peek out from their four-cheese shroud turned beautifully crisp and sweet as they caramelized in the heat of the oven. Meanwhile, the rest steamed under its white blanket, pulling away as a solid mass when we tugged at it with our teeth. Why not let all the kale peek out? (Oh, and could we have a sprinkle of salt while you’re at it?)
The Cure ($15) combined good salami with fresno chilis, mozzarella, and a dusting of pecorino. Simple, balanced, and tasty, but couldn’t the edges of that salami have been browned just a tad? It’s the kind of pie that makes you wish you were eating the soppresatta pie from Motorino.
Unsurprisingly, one of the most redemptive elements of Krescendo’s menu is the desserts. Judging from the Cannolo ($6) alone, you wouldn’t guess that Falkner is the woman behind San Francisco’s Citizen Cake and Orson, but it’s a fine dessert nonetheless. Crisp, greaseless, and stuffed with a not-too-sweet ricotta filling, it hits a perfect balance of dark chocolate, pistachio, and bitter-sweet candied orange zest. Our cannolo came with a few crunchy-sweet slices of candied fennel stems, as well—an altogether more satisfying use of the vegetable than on our pizza.
The hazelnut and chocolate Tartufo ($9) is another excellent dessert. We could have managed another helping or three of the excellent salted caramel sauce and crumbled sbrosolona, a shortbread-like Italian tart.
Our version of the Cassata ($9) looked markedly different than the one pictured in the Times review. In fact, we realized that the dessert is composed of the exact same elements as the cannolo. That is, if you took away the unifying crunchy shell, added icy tangerine sorbet, and topped it with three campari-soaked cherries. Our sponge cake was more mushy and wet than moist and spongy; of the two desserts, the cannolo is a clear winner.
So the question remains. Is Krescendo worth a trip on the A-train?
Head to Krescendo for dessert. Or even go for their pizza—if these pies been coming out of this oven a decade ago, we would have been proclaiming their genius. But the fact is, with our current access to truly remarkable Neapolitan-derived pizza in New York, what we’ve eaten at Krescendo is, as the Cookie Monster used to say, good, but not delicious. It’s the kind of place you’d be happy to have on your block; the kind of place you’d even travel to if your friends lived near by.
Judging by the fleeting glimpses of greatness that we experienced, it’s possible we happened to hit Krescendo on two off-nights. That’s what we hope, anyway—Falkner is too talented for us to think otherwise.
In this day and age, plain old good pizza just isn’t good enough for anything beyond a comfortable neighborhood joint. If that’s Falkner’s goal, then she has succeeded, no changes necessary. But if her goal is great pizza, there are still a few details that need working out.