Brick + Wood: Has Frank Pepe's Famous Pizza Met Its Match?
In one week, we had pizza from the hallowed Frank Pepe Pizzeria in New Haven, Connecticut, and from recently opened Brick + Wood in Fairfield. Our reaction? Renowned Pepe’s may finally have met its match.
The first pizza we ordered at the fairly new Brick + Wood came to the table with its crust blis-tered, blackened, thin, and crisp. It was a revelation — light in the mouth and light in the stom-ach. From our table we could see the chef in the open kitchen handling the dough like a puppeteer. He looked like a kid massaging Play-Doh, clearly enjoying the experience. He stretched the dough, spun it into a disk, and patted it evenly on a tin pie plate, pinching a small roll around the edges. Then he dressed it with the sauce, cheese, and basil that would keep its pungency even after baking in the searing heat of the oven in a far corner of the kitchen.
Our 12-inch pie (that’s the only size you’re going to get here) was a Margherita; there was nothing standard about the ingredients, though, as it tasted of fresh San Marzano tomatoes and house-made mozzarella. The mozzarella was another revelation. It was light and milky, with a soft texture that can be manipulated this way and that. Like the dough, the mozzarella was made by Paolo Cavalli, born in the States, raised in Italy, and trained as a Neapolitan pizzaiolo; Cavalli is the owner/chef of B+W with his wife, Clara. You can sit at the marble counter and watch him as he stirs the curds in a pot of hot water with his hands. A bit of choreography ensues as he coaxes the cheese first into long strips and then into balls rolled tightly with a fanciful knot.
Roasted zucchini crowned another pizza along with caramelized onions and small puddles of ricotta. It’s a gentler pizza, if such words can be used to describe a dish that is usually robust. On the other hand, the delicious Diavola had some pretty hot stuff going for it: spicy soppressata, garlic, and jalapeños that bring tears to your eyes, along with a croaky plea for “More wine, sir.”
Then we tried a few small plates, labeled on the menu as the street food of Naples, and are designed to be shared. We had egg-shaped bocconcini; bite-sized pieces of mozzarella that had been coated with panko crumbs, fried, and presented on a salad that sported shavings of crisp pear, candied walnuts, and maple vinaigrette. I’m not a fan of this little ball of cheese, as it often is so bland, but the B+W treatment made a convert of me.
A girelli (spiral) followed: a thin plank of mozzarella wrapped around roasted eggplant, prosciutto, and roasted red peppers. It’s rustic, humble, and satisfying with a glass of sauvignon blanc. Still perambulating over the small plate offerings, we chose to sample a mozzarella ball around creamy burrata with bits of black truffle trapped inside. Now this was really darn good fare, and to anchor it was a bed of ubiquitous arugula matched with prosciutto (sliced in open view on what looks like an ordinary supermarket slicing machine). To our great surprise and delight, the burrata did not weep all over the plate. Where does this guy get his stuff? Can I drive there and buy it for my own larder?
Clara apparently tends to other dimensions in the kitchen (we watched her mixing salads). Her canon of recipes is constantly growing according to the specials chalked on a massive brick wall in the dining room.
B+W is more a spin on a trattoria than a pizza parlor. For one thing, it is a big space with a wall of windows and waiters wearing T-shirts extolling love. What pizza joint have you been in lately where the mozzarella is homemade, there are black truffles on the cutting board, no less than 38 wines are on tap (no more wine on its last legs), there are crisp bacon bits on the maple bread pudding, and the arancini are rolled in panko crumbs and encase perfectly cooked rice with a bite to it, along with pear bits and gorgonzola, the whole served with a dipping sauce of caramelized butter with sage and an added hint of something sweet? We barely heard the noise and laughter from the bar area, maybe because we were still trying to figure out what Clara added to that brown butter sauce that made it so beguiling.
No pasta or chicken scarpiello that appear on menus in standard trattorias, but who needs them when there is so much else going on, and you can easily get those familiar dishes at other local haunts? What pizzeria dips into Asian or Mexican cuisines for sauces of red miso or chipolte to tag along with calamari that is as tender as it is crunchy? How about nights featuring chefs lured from nearby restaurants cooking up their specialties?
There are different possibilities for toppings, but not crazily so. Ditto the wines. Try the flight of four wines, two whites for the mozzarella options and two reds for the pizza. Or, indulge in a carafe of Sangiovese. You may end up dining like a Neapolitan in Connecticut — one who shuttles between New Haven and Fairfield just for a slice of pizza.