This is a controversial take, but I mean it: Italian restaurants in New York are better than Italian restaurants in Italy. The influence of Italian American heft, the freedom to stray beyond regional tradition, and the pressure of competition in a saturated market means that the chefs who stand out here (Missy Robbins, Jonathan Waxman, Rita Sodi, the Major Food guys) must consistently meet an ever-rising bar for quality. This makes it a welcome surprise to see a newcomer — new to the city, anyway — bring their own vision to the scene. Such was the case at Farina, a Southern Italian pizzeria that recently opened on the grungy, garage-heavy border of Red Hook and Carroll Gardens.
Farina has only been open since August, but chef Tony Pisaniello has run restaurants and bars in Italy since the ’90s. A copy of his 2008 cookbook, Mani in Pasta, rests on a mantel inside Farina, and flipping through, it becomes clear that his style has evolved away from molecular gastronomy and fine dining into the rustic preparations that tend to play well in these parts: meatballs, creamy supplì (Rome’s answer to arancini), and pizza that is unlike anything else I’ve found in the city.
It was the oven that inspired Pisaniello to open his first American restaurant: He couldn’t resist the pull of the antique oven that had been restored by the space’s previous tenant, Pizza Moto. “The oven is important,” Pisaniello says. “The oven is the fountain of energy in this place — it’s strong.” (Strong enough, it seems, to overlook the area’s surrounding ambience: a gas station across the street and the BQE rumbling overhead.)
Photo: Courtesy of Farina
Inside, however, the room is wood-accented and — there’s no other word for it — cozy. The antico forno cranks out marina and margherita pies, in addition to options that are based on Pisaniello’s “memory of the flavor” of various Italian regions. His home, Campania, is represented by mushrooms, garlic, parsley, and homemade fior di latte. The Abruzzo is a white pie with dollops of saffron mashed potatoes and a coarse, peppery Italian sausage made in Sullivan County, while Sicily is showcased with a baroque pairing of almond cream, apricot jam, and cinnamon, as well as Pecorino and black pepper.
As much as Pisaniello adores the oven, it has its quirks. It was originally built to bake bread, and as such, it’s vast and cavernous and hard to maintain at a high enough temperature for baking traditional Neapolitan pizza, which Pisaniello says should take no more than two minutes. He estimates that it runs at least 100 degrees cooler than his ideal temperature, so he created his pizza recipe to match the oven: He starts with a seven-grain blend of flour for his dough (including wheat, corn, rice, spelt, and ancient grains native to Italy) and bakes each pie for three to four minutes, rotating throughout to evenly brown the crust. The pizzas — oblong and misshapen by design — are chewy and crackly with flavor that evokes a harvest. Despite all the other pizza in this city, no immediate comparisons come to mind.
The oven has to burn continuously to hold its temperature, so Pisaneillo and his cooks use the passive heat to cook other dishes, like the meatballs (listed on the menu by their Sicilian name, purpetta). The kitchen staff currently use the house flour to make bread for service, as well, with the intention of ramping up production to eventually offer loaves to go. Farina doesn’t deliver, but they will box up pizzas for takeout, for which their dough is well suited: It maintains a pleasant chew and complex flavor, even if you eat it the next day.