Restaurant Review: Co. (NYC)

Several weeks ago, I went to Co. for the second time. Apparently it is pronounced “company” but I find this confusing and a little pretentious. Apologies in advance for the quality of the photographs; I had forgotten my camera so we used a cell phone.

"Popeye", with pecorino, gruyère, mozzarella, spinach, black pepper, and garlic.

This upscale pizza restaurant is located in Chelsea, just blocks away from Upright Citizens Brigade, making it a solid date night restaurant. It’s also, incidentally, directly across the street from my once-favorite Chinese restaurant in the city–Grand Szechuan–which was displaced by Sichuan Gourmet. The chef-owner is Jim Lahey, champion of “no-knead bread”. His bread recipes have been written about by Mark Bittman, served up at Jean-Georges (an investor in Co.) and Marea, and raved about by none other than Stone Soup co-author Josh Morrison.

The decor of the restaurant is casual and relaxing. Long, wooden communal tables stretch across the dining room, with rows hanging lamps directing their light downward, right at the pizza to be placed below. A few tables line the walls, but I found it more fun to sit at the communal table, which seemed to bridge the boundary between a fine dining establishment and the informality of a pizza parlor. The wood and stainless steel and little else made the room seem modern rustic in the clean and sparsely-furnished sort of way, like a cross between Peter Luger and Aquavit. All of this prepares you for a somewhat revolutionary experience–this isn’t your local Brooklyn pizza.

The thing to get here is obviously the pizza. The dough is prominently featured, as advertised. It is thin, light, with huge air-pockets. The outer edges are crunchy and charred from the intense heat (900 degrees F) of the wood-burning oven that home cooks simply cannot replicate, no matter how conductive their pizza stones may be. Despite being barren of toppings, the crust itself was salty, and a little sour-doughy. Needless to say, I didn’t discard it like oil boom-grade Domino’s crust. The dough under the toppings, on the other hand, mopped up the liquids from the toppings well, particularly the nectar leaking out of the roasted cherry tomatoes.

Special of the day: mozzarella, basil, roasted cherry tomatoes, chili, and corn meal.

Though most of the hoopla is focused on the dough, I thought the toppings were extraordinary. I’m customarily a meat-eater, and when I go out to restaurants, I don’t stick with salads. My first trip to Co. with three other omnivores and one vegetarian, I dutifully requested the “Boscaiola”, with tomato, mozzarella, pork sausage, mushroom, onion, and chili. On the suggestion of an episode of No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain, however, I also recommended the “Popeye” with pecorino, gruyère, mozzarella, spinach, black pepper, and garlic. It was revelatory. I hate cooked spinach normally, finding it slimy, stringy, and bitter. But this spinach had been scorched by a 900 degree oven. The edges of the leaves were blackened and crispy, and the heat seemed to have released the Platonic essence of spinach flavor, free from the disgusting texture and tongue-parching quality it normally has. The cheeses complimented the spinach perfectly. The black pepper were crushed larger and coarser than normal, so it provided a surprising toothsome crunch to the odd bite. I thought the some of the garlic pieces we a little large for my taste, but it didn’t stop me from ordering the Popeye at my second visit. At that visit, my friend ordered their special pizza of the day, which had mozzarella, basil, roasted cherry tomatoes, chili, and (interestingly) corn meal. The concept of using corn meal as a base, in lieu of a tomato sauce, actually worked terrifically, and I would get it again if it were available. The toppings were so good that I remarked to my vegetarian friend that I could see myself converting… if I could eat Co.-quality pizza every day.

Quick note about a salad we ordered. It was delicious, and simple enough to try to replicate at home. In fact, it’s going with the escarole-gruyere-citrus idea I stole from Union Sq. Cafe in David’s Book/Pamphlet/Short List of 2 Salad Recipes. This Co. salad was shaved strips of zucchini (I think it was raw), dressed with a simple lemon-olive oil vinaigrette, black pepper, coarsely ground sea salt, basil, shaved parmesan, and mint (a masterful addition). Great alternative to the leafy salad variety, and the best part was that the zucchini held up better than a poor lettuce leaf against absorption of the vinaigrette, and retained most of its crunchiness. A sure winner for any dinner party.

The service was terrific. The server was incredibly friendly and polite. One when reaching over to clear a plate, he accidentally brushed against my shoulder. And by brushed, I mean there may have been the barest contact between his shirt sleeve and the fabric of my shirt by my shoulder. He immediately swung over and apologized in a courteous, but not embarrassing manner. At my first visit, the server was able to squeeze in two extra pizza orders during a busy dinner service when we realized that our initial order was insufficient, and she/the kitchen ensured its timely arrival before we had finished the first two pizzas. The standard of good service remains water service, and here Co. has a good system in place. Your water is filled from a carafe, and the carafe is left on the table. Instead of a small carafe that merely held the volume of the already-poured water and scantly a few milliliters more, this carafe was well capable of filling our glasses again. And what’s more, full carafes of water were left on the table, finally answering the eternal custom of leaving a nearly empty carafe with an obvious solution–don’t. Of course, the server also stopped by frequently to top off our water glasses, and I never had a moment where had to search out some hapless busboy with a needy look.

Having sampled NYC’s artisanal pizza scene (Motorino, Otto, Artichoke), its old guard landmarks (Grimaldi’s, Patsy’s), and its everyday NYC standbys (Koronet’s, the generic place that Louie C.K. scarfs down a slice at, half-a-dozen random places with “Best Slice in New York” signs, and the pinnacle of authenticity–Famiglia’s), and even some healthy challengers from up in Boston (Emma’s in Cambridge), I’m confident in voting for Co. as my favorite pizza spot. Go, and get the spinach pie. It’ll make your taste buds bulge like its namesake’s muscles.

Co.: 4 / 5

230 Ninth Avenue (and 24th Street)
New York, NY