Tuesday, August 25, 2009


As a child I had an imaginary friend named Pierre who strangely only appeared when we stayed at hotels. His primary function was to stand guard of our room while we explored the sights of the city we were visiting.

Perhaps it is a sign of the gradual acculturation of a family as it moves away from its immigrant roots that my imaginary friend was a foppish French boy who like me favored hotels with interior corridors and chocolates on the pillows, whereas my father, a first generation American growing up on those storied Brooklyn streets, had a friend named Kesty Kestenbaum.

Now whether Kesty was real or imagined remains a point of great contention. My father always claimed that he had in fact existed, but my mother never quite believed him. Regardless of the veracity of his actual existence, Kesty certainly played the role of a child's imaginary friend in that whatever capers my naturally mischievous father got into, Kesty inevitably shouldered the blame. It was because of Kesty claimed my dad that he never learned Hebrew properly while studying for his Bar Mitzvah. It was Kesty who taught him every dirty word he knew. Broken window? Kesty. Broken promise? Kesty. But time and time again, in spite of my father's best efforts to avoid trouble, that devilish charmer Kesty Kestenbaum convinced him to participate in one wild scheme after another.

Now all this is just to explain that when I learned that the hot new pizza place in Manhattan was called Keste, I felt an immediate sense of intrigue combined with skepticism. Sure it was pronounced with an accented E on the end. Sure the chef was famous for his extreme precision in meeting the standards of the Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani. Sure it had made all sorts of top pizza lists in the height of an ever-growing pizza craze. But with that name, could it be trusted? Or was it just to a ploy to make me spend a lot of money on a mediocre pizza?

I had to find out, and so the ever-game Daniel and I set out to explore. As reservations are not accepted and as we were not a bevy of sexy Italian speaking pretty young things, we gave our names to the affable man at the door and prepared to wait. We waited. And waited. We ate the tiny sliver of free pizza offered to the hodge podge of non-Italian speaking hotties with whom we were waiting. And then we waited some more.

At last, we received the nod in (Daniel's name was not called; perhaps the host had memorized the beard.) We perused the menu and given the heavy representation of pork products, we were able to choose without too much discussion.

I insisted on the Marinara because it is with this simple, cheeseless pizza that I think you can truly judge a pizza place.

The Keste version was good, and a true model of simplicity. The tomato, olive oil blend was a sweet and tangy melange, broken up by the occasional clove of garlic or oregano leaf. Very nice flavor. Of course with pizza these days, that is not sufficient. Connoisseurs of the real Neapolitan deal obsess about the crust, and here is where the you began to feel that perhaps this Keste was using a bit of the other Kesty's wily ways to pull the wool over your eyes a bit. While the cornicione, or outer charred ring was incredibly well flavored - a wonderful combination or saltiness and that doughy floury taste - and while it looked the part with properly appointed brown bits, it lacked any of the crunch that such pies usually have. It had the chew but not the bite. Because of this perhaps, by the time you got to the center of the circle, the pizza was almost a bit soggy. It still tasted great, but something was off.

There was a similar problem with the Pomodorini e provola that we ordered for our second pizza.

It looked delicious. The same crunchy looking charred bits. Loads of bright red cherry tomatoes; the sheen of smoked mozzarella; a sprinkling of wilted fresh basil. But again, it didn't quite all add up. There were the same crust issues and in the cooking the tomatoes had lost enough of their snap and tartness that they couldn't quite counter the overpowering flavor of the cheese.

Now none of this was enough of a problem to prevent us from stuffing ourselves to the point of stomach aches for all or from bringing the rest home to have for breakfast the next day. But as with the original Kesty, we were left to wonder if all the hype was real or somehow fabricated. And as it seems was often the case with my dad and his buddy, we emerged a little poorer and with that belly ache that comes when you've overindulged (although in our case the excess came by way of smoked cheese and not too many games of craps.)

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