Old-World Recipes, Homemade Touches
At Lorusso Gourmet Pizza Focaccia in northern Astoria, all the usual Italian bases are covered, from Alfredo sauce to baked ziti.
But this is no ordinary pizza joint. The first clue: A gaggle of homemade pestos and hot sauces in unlabeled mason jars huddle in the front refrigerator case.
Move past shelves stocked with bags of house-baked taralli (pretzel-like, baked Italian snacks) and survey the pizza options. Look again—that’s not pizza but rather the specialty of the house, focaccia (Italian flatbread), topped with a dozen different combinations of vegetables, cheeses and meats.
Die-hard pizza fans can easily score a Sicilian slice or an uninspired-looking pepperoni pie. But at Lorusso, focaccia is the better bet.
Restaurant owner Mario Lorusso is a native of Bari, the southern Italian port city where dough-based snacks, like focaccia and taralli, are beloved. All the restaurant’s baking is done in house using his family recipes, and the flavorful results speak for themselves.
Aside from a few varieties sporting grilled chicken, ground beef or sausage, the focaccia at Lorusso is mostly vegetarian—though the lineup changes from day to day. Each one is about the size of Pizza Hut’s once-popular personal pan pizza, yielding four triangular slices. But be warned—these focaccia are surprisingly hearty. Unless you have a ferocious appetite, one will easily be enough.
Our favorites (in order of popularity) were the simple garlic focaccia, the rich, creamy mashed-potato focaccia—seasoned with a dash of oregano—and the tangy, zesty fresh mozzarella with fresh tomato and balsamic focaccia.
The garlic focaccia, lightly dusted with dried oregano, salt and more than a few shakes of extra-virgin olive oil, was particularly satisfying. (At Mario’s suggestion, we also added a spoonful of powdered Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.)
The mild seasonings allowed the bread itself to take center stage. Soft but crispy and golden at the edges and infused with flavorful, almost buttery, extra-virgin olive oil, this focaccia would have been delicious without any toppings at all.
We also tried focaccia topped with fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers and balsamic, another with ricotta and spinach and one with roasted eggplant, fresh tomato and balsamic.
The roasted red peppers were oddly sweet, and the ricotta and spinach were disappointingly bland. But on the third focaccia, the earthy flavors of the roasted eggplant perfectly complemented the creamy mozzarella and mildly tangy tomatoes and balsamic vinegar.
We ended the meal with fennel taralli and homemade tiramisu. Like pretzels, taralli are rolled out, twisted into shape and then boiled and baked until their outsides are crispy and golden. These treats had slightly sweet undertones with a savory, licorice-y flavor imparted by the olive oil and fennel seeds baked into the dough. It was a simple, effective palate cleanser.
But if the taralli were good, the tiramisu was revelatory. Unlike many cream- and sugar-sodden American tiramisus, Lorusso’s version was light, airy and only mildly sweetened, with a distinctly rummy flavor. Mario buys his tiramisu from a friend who bakes it specially for Lorusso. It was some of the best we had ever tried.
And one more revelation: All this, plus a few other sides and drinks all around (non-alcoholic), added up to just $60—or $10 per person. For a meal with so many careful, homemade touches, we happily would have paid twice that.