This restaurant is closed!
319 Graham Ave (Devoe St)
City: Brooklyn, NY
Phone: (718) 599-8899
Hours: Sun-Thu 11am-11pm Fri-Sat 11am-12am
Site: Visit the restaurant site
2nd Cuisine: Italian
Payment: Amex Visa Mastercard
There are certain career transitions that make perfect sense. A lawyer may become a judge, an athlete may transition to become a sports commentator, an actor may end up a star on a rehab reality show, a successful chef may become a Food Network star, a judge of a reality series, a brand ambassador, or all of the above. But the case of chef Mathieu Palombino, a native of Belgium (from an Italian neighborhood in Mouscron) who has spent most of his culinary years cooking high-end French food under Chef Laurent Tourondel at Cello and then BLT Fish, is a curious one. Rather than continue down the path as expected, to perhaps open a namesake French restaurant, or some sort of jewel box in Manhattan, he chose to decamp to Williamsburg and open, well, a neighborhood pizza place. Come again? Yes, a pizza place. In Williamsburg. And it’s not even off the Bedford Avenue stop. It’s on Graham and Devoe, a sleepy corner that’s far removed from the hustle and flow of the most popular L train stop.
But to Palombino, it all makes perfect sense. He lives nearby with his wife and 15 month old son, and he’s got a serious passion for pizza, one sparked at a young age by a Southern Italian father who took his young boy on pizza-eating pilgrimages to Italy. That early Italian inspiration, coupled with a wife who craved pizza and ate it three times a day when she was pregnant, lead him to return to the pies of his youth.
In preparation for the opening, Palmobino moved to Italy to learn the art of authentic Neapolitan pizzeria, and study with local pizza makers to learn the centuries-old craft. He returned to Brooklyn, found a corner store with a glass façade, and original pressed tin ceilings and installed a Renato wood-burning oven, an L-shaped bar, and began to let the dough rise inside his very own pizza shop, a sweet place he called Motorino, after the Italian scooter.
He opened the doors with a simple menu of charcuteries and cheeses, fresh salads, antipasti (many of which are roasted in the wood-oven like artichokes, squash with sage, and Brussels sprouts) and, of course, hand-tossed pizzas. From day one, the pizza police (Ed Levine, Adam Kuban) have been showering him with praise previously reserved for the likes of DeFarra and Lucali. I hopped the G train, and was on my way.
My first visit with my friend Court, a pizza lover who favors Una Pizza Napoletana, was on a cold Sunday evening. We walked in and were greeted by the warm and smoky aroma of real pit barbecue. The wood-fired hearth used for pizzas is also used to cook bacon and pancetta, and the charred wood combined with the roasting meats makes you wonder if you’re in a pizza place or a barbecue joint. It’s a fantastic aroma and one that should be packaged, following in the footsteps of Burger King’s Flame.
The place was pretty mellow, which I guess made sense for a cold Sunday night, but the pizza oven was doing a brisk take-out business, with pizza pies piled up in cardboard boxes being shipped out to bicyclists with alarming frequency. As I waited for Court, a solo diner was at the bar, Blackberry in one hand, pizza in the other, a few tables of friends were pulling slices from tomato and cheese pies, while a couple in matching handmade knit caps were sharing a bowl of olives, and a platter of Prosciutto di Parma and Emily’s Pork Store soppressata ($5 each). (Mathieu’s mother was a butcher; his impressive selection of meats from local shops is an ode to her.)
Court had picked up a bottle of red from the local liquor store (Motorino is BYOB for now) and we started out with a round of name that tune (the soundtrack here is all 80s classics, from Billy Squier to Journey, Foreigner, Boston, and more), and a terrific arugula salad tossed with figs, paper thin slices of pear, and strips of smoky bacon, dressed in a lemony vinaigrette and draped with a slice of gorgonzola ($8). To our salad and tableside karaoke, we added the roasted squash, drizzled with aged balsamic and crowned with a few fried sage leaves and the roasted Brussels sprouts with shaved Parmesan ($6 each). The squash was quite perfect, the sort of side you might add to a holiday table, but the sprouts were overdone. That wood oven is quite a hot one and I imagine it sometimes can bring vegetables to an early demise.
No matter, we were not there for the veggie sides. We were there for those mystic pizzas. The menu includes ten choices plus two seasonal pies, ranging from simple marinara to more ornate creations topped with Brussels sprouts, speck and Parmigiano ($14).
We ordered one pie to start, and decided to go with a classic, one without embellishment—the Margherita DOC ($13)—a pie topped with imported mozzarella di bufala, tomato sauce and basil. It arrived, bubbling with cheese and fragrant with basil and the sweetness of tomato sauce. We tore into the pie (too fast, I burned the roof of my mouth), but I found that the pie was worth the blisters. The sauce is sweet, but it also has a nice heat in the background, though the crust was the real prize—smoky, puffy, chewy at the edges and thin enough in the body, but still strong enough to hold up the weight of the toppings. It was gone pretty quickly. We needed another.
Laura, our very sweet waitress with a Southern accent who told us of her recent move to New York from Nashville, helped us choose another, and we went for the artichoke pie topped with smoked pancetta, fior di latte (made in house) and sliced artichokes ($13).While I had about half a slice—and enjoyed the smokiness of the pancetta with the woodsy artichokes—Court polished off the rest. He seemed ready for another. That’s the thing about these pies. You think you can’t eat more than one, and you can. Most certainly you can allot one pie per person. Even if you have to take a slice home, it will make a great lunch the next day.
On a Thursday night with Kiri, Motorino was significantly more populated, almost every table was filled, smiling faces drinking wine and eating lots of pizza. It’s a simple pleasure that really works. In fact, some nights it even lures Mathieu’s old boss and mentor, Laurent Tourondel, who travels down to Brooklyn from the Upper East Side just for a few of his protégé’s pies.
We started with a tri-color salad—a toss of endive, radicchio and arugula in a peppery balsamic vinaigrette ($7). A special that night was pistachio-studded mortadella sliced thick and roasted in the oven, served with hot mustard. We jumped on that bandwagon, and cut into the smoky pinwheels, dunking its crispy charred edges in the spicy mustard. Wrap this in a tube of pizza dough, kids, and you’ve got a great new fangled pig in a blanket.
Pizzas were equally good that night—we had a Margarita with fior de late ($10) and yes, another artichoke pie. We wanted to try something new, like the one cloaked with prosciutto and sprinkled with oregano ($12), or the white pie swathed in mozzarella flecked with sea salt ($16)—but Kiri was committed to the artichoke pie and so it was. (Two slices made it home with me, which I had for lunch the following day, heated up on a pizza stone I keep in my oven that maintains the crust’s crispness.) We had a table right up close to the pizza oven where pies are pulled by Mathieu and a team of pizza-making friends from the oven on wide long wooden slabs, and sprinkled with fresh Parmesan and a drizzle of fruity olive oil before being set on the table on a marble slab.
The only issue I had the second night was an overdose of Parmesan. On our first visit, the Parm was just a garnish, a nice little hit of salt and tang. But the second night, the Parmesan was poured on with too heavy a hand, and it masked flavors of the pies: the sweetness of the mozzarella, the freshness of the tomato. It was almost all we could taste, and that was unfortunate. My only request would be to tone down the Parm.
While you might consider dessert an afterthought at a pizza place, that is not the case at Motorino. Remember, you’re dealing with a classically trained chef here, and Mathieu makes one of the most ethereal tiramisus I’ve ever had the pleasure of consuming—light and creamy, with the strength of espresso cutting through the sweetness of the fresh whipped cream. He also prepares several daily flavors of gelato and sorbet. The lemon and blood orange make a great palate cleansing after-dinner combo.
Occasionally, he’ll also prepare something a little more “ambitious” than a pizza—a wood-oven roasted brook trout, or the like, dishes that give a little glimpse into his past life as a fancy chef. But it’s hard to order Brook Trout when the lure of the pizzas coming from the mouth of the wood-fired oven is like something from a Lewis Carroll book chanting EAT ME, EAT ME. He may have been a great fancy chef, and may still be one. But for now he’s a pizza pie man. And what he was is really beside the point.
Review By: Andrea Strong