Jay Z and Beyoncé love Lucali too. Photo: Liz Clayman
Though there’s a great deal of retro romance left in Carroll Gardens, the south Brooklyn neighborhood that’s been traditionally Italian since around the 1920s, it’s mostly newcomers ruling the roost when it comes to the best restaurants. Sure, there are a handful of remaining red-sauce joints where you can get a decent plate of meatballs or a slice, and the long-standing butchers, delis (particularly Caputo’s arrivals.
575 Henry St., at Carroll St.; 718-858-4086
Jay Z and Beyoncé’s favorite pizzeria is so unassuming it looks like it’s been around for decades. In fact, it’s just under ten years old, opened by Carroll Gardens native and pizza savant Mark Iacono — who had never made a pie before — on what was basically a whim. The menu has not changed since, consisting primarily of thin-crust pies (one size only) topped with tangy tomato sauce, fresh buffalo mozzarella, shaved sharp Grana Padano, sliced garlic, and a smattering of optional add-ons, like pepperoni and mushrooms. The pizzas are charred in a brick oven that takes up nearly half the dining room, and they’re finished with sprigs of basil. They’re perfect. The only other things on offer are calzones and soft drinks; bring your own beer and wine. No delivery (though sometimes they’ll let you pick up, depending on how slammed they are), no slices, no reservations. Which can mean long waits any night of the week. Put your name on the list (your best bet is to arrive at five, an hour before it opens, and choose what time you want to sit), then camp out at a bar nearby. It’s worth it.
2. Court Street Grocers
485 Court St., nr. Nelson St.; 718-722-7229
Court Street Sandwiches would be a more accurate name for what’s essentially a small counter, behind which exceptional ingredients are placed between slices of bread, plus a tiny tin-ceiling-ed room crammed with wooden tables — but it’s the walls lined with specialty snacks and condiments and the refrigerator full of regional sodas that give it an atmosphere as appealing as its food. Breakfast is an especially strong point: soft-scrambled eggs on focaccia with Cheddar, arugula, and a juicy pork sausage split lengthwise or a tangle of bacon make for the platonic ideal of a BEC, and the pork roll (scrambled eggs, Martin’s potato bun, American cheese, Taylor ham) is a compact culinary representation of America. But the heroes are best-in-show, too, as evidenced in particular by the perfectly balanced Italian Combo (cold cuts, cheeses, and a proprietary “hoagie spread” on a Caputo Bakery seeded roll) and its vegetarian cousin, the Vegitalian Combo (roasted butternut squash, cheeses, and hoagie spread on the same seeded roll), which is magically just as good.
187 Sackett St., nr. Henry St.; 347-227-7116
The charming part: The 12-seat restaurant has just two employees: the chef, Elise Kornack, who prepares the $75 to $95 tasting menu entirely on her own, and her wife, Anna Hieronimus, who covers all things front-of-house. Together, they’ve earned a Michelin star. The less charming part: It’s only open Thursday through Saturday nights, with just one seating per night, making reservations maddeningly hard to come by. And dishes tend to be of the precious, tweezer-plated variety — artfully tiny portions crowned with dainty miniature leaves. But cooking this good — Adam Platt described a course of roasted lamb belly as a “thing of beauty” and declared Kornack to have a “genius for shuffling together the produce from her local Greenmarket in all sorts of unexpected ways” — cannot be ignored, and so it earns a spot on the list, even if it feels like a challenge to eat there.
255 Smith St., nr. Degraw St.; 718-852-8321
Long gone are the days when people waited three hours to eat Battersby’s revolutionary kale salad; long gone are the days when kale salad seemed remotely revolutionary. Though the buzz over Battersby has died down, the restaurant remains deeply impressive, quietly churning out surprising seasonal dishes from what can barely be called a kitchen; it’s more of an area in the back of the tiny dining room. In good weather, the sliver of the back garden is a perfect place to splurge on what they call their “spontaneous tasting menu, ” $75, featuring dishes like clam ceviche with lime and chili, and delicate ricotta tortellini nestled with asparagus and ramps in a shimmery vegetable broth. And even going à la carte ensures you a palate-cleanser shot of a rotating puréed soup or consommé, plus a complimentary slab of pillowy rosemary focaccia with whipped ricotta, a thrill in the era of the $12 bread plate.
5. Frankies 457 Spuntino
457 Court St., nr. Luquer St.; 718-403-0033
Frankies is the ultimate neighborhood restaurant, particularly in this neighborhood, given its Italian identity: invitingly cozy (a vibe that spills over into the beautiful back garden in the warmer months); reliably pasta-centric and comforting; and brimming with local regulars, both old-timers and new. But it’s good enough to attract people from far and wide, too, turning its owners, “the Franks” (Castronovo and Falcinelli), into celebrity chefs with cookbook deals and their own brand of spicy green olive oil, which is served with crusty bread at the beginning of any meal there. It’s hard to go wrong with this caliber of straightforward and consistent Italian fare: You can count on the escarole salad with red onion, walnuts, and Pecorino, which is as spot-hitting as a Caesar but more interesting, and the housemade cavatelli with Faicco’s hot sausage and browned sage butter is an indulgent and evergreen slam dunk. There are always a few curve balls thrown, too, as with a recent dish of sliced roasted rib eye, served chilled to bring out its strange and delicious gaminess.