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In Search of New York’s Essential Calzone

A summer quest for the underappreciated dish gave me a better understanding of Brooklyn — and my place in it

The calzone at Brooklyn’s Ops pizza, the “gold standard.”

During a sweltering afternoon last month in Brooklyn, on a day when trudging along on the sidewalk felt like wading through shower gel, I walked into the original location of Di Fara, one of the country’s most famous pizzerias. It was well past prime lunchtime, around 2 p.m. From all I’d read about the place, there should have been a line of people flowing out its door. But there was no wait — only three wilted-looking customers, nibbling on square slices, sitting at communal tables in the back of the small shop. New York heat waves will roast the appetite for pizza right out of most souls.

I happily scooted up to the counter and ordered a pie. But then, a moment after the man who took my order handed the ticket to the cook, I spotted my favorite word in the Italian language. It was so far down on restaurant’s wall-bound menu that it was half obscured by a plastic bag full of oregano plonked atop a tall can. But there it was: calzone.

“Hey, can you make my pie a calzone instead?” I asked. The counterman turned to the baker, who on this day was Robert Lee, not owner Domenico DeMarco, who first opened the shop in 1965. “You able to make this guy a calzone today?” Lee glanced at me over his shoulder. “Yeah, I can do that,” he said.

Half an hour later, Lee pulled his bronzed sculpture from the oven, finishing the presentation with a slash of olive oil, some sprinkled cheese, and a few basil leaves. The calzone spanned most of a large pizza tray. As DeMarco does, Lee had snipped the edges of the dough into rectangular shapes. They brought to mind crenellations along a castle rampart; the behemoth curved into a slight crescent, and from one angle it resembled an eagle with spread wings.

There must have been two pounds of ricotta encased in the crust. The hot drifts of cheese swallowed up the sliced sausage rounds and the strips of roasted red pepper I’d requested as fillings. I asked for a side of tomato sauce, and in this case I used the calzone’s molten center almost as a dip, slicing off the crenellations with knife and fork, spearing some sausage or pepper or both, and dragging them through the cheese and then the sauce.

Chef Robert Lee turns a pie request into a calzone at Di Fara.

I couldn’t polish off more than a third of the thing. Lee slid the calzone into a massive to-go box, and I carried it back to my summer sublet across from the Brooklyn museum and shared the rest with friends, reheated, for dinner at their apartment that night.

That afternoon is the mental postcard moment I’ll carry with me from this summer. Di Fara had long been on the list of essential Brooklyn restaurants I’d hoped to visit. It felt even better, though, to have savored a little triumph in an impractical, sporadic, just-for-fun calzone quest I’d chased through July and August. In practice, I was just channeling my job of endlessly researching restaurants into a pet project. But actually, this journey into Brooklyn’s calzone culture was an exercise to ground myself in a place.

Calzone translates as “trouser leg,” a wonderfully visual descriptor conjuring its original form. Americans know the calzone mostly as the baked, oversized, cheese-seeping construct; in its 18th-century Neapolitan roots it was a more manageable, portable turnover, a take-it-to-the-streets variation on a pizza that might be baked or fried.

Foods made of stuffed dough obviously exist through the ages across the globe. In the history of invasions and migrations, it isn’t hard to imagine Egyptian hawawshis (meat-filled pitas) or Lebanese fatayars (meat or vegetable hand pies) in some ways shaping through the millennia what became Neapolitan cuisine. Ideas like the pizza and the calzone met the moment when New World tomatoes were being embraced in the region as something other than poisonous — especially delicious, in fact, when paired with dairy to soften their acidity and tease out their umami.

Four million Italian immigrants arrived in America by the 1920s; Lombardi’s in Manhattan opened in 1905 and is recognized as the country’s first pizzeria. If Lombardi’s didn’t sell calzones a century ago, it does these days. One thing is clear: Since arriving in the New World, the calzone’s girth enlarged with American-style ambitions and appetites.

Yet in Italian-American restaurants the calzone has always been, at best, a sidekick to the pizza, and more often a novelty, an aberrant, a joke. The tastes of calzone fans, like me, are often called into question. I can’t mention my predilection without being sent gifs or YouTube clips of the Ben Wyatt character on Parks and Recreation; we share a lonely passion. Haters say there’s usually too much ricotta (I don’t love that, either, but this isn’t a universal trait), or they arrive undercooked (true if made by inexperienced hands), or they’re unruly and need a knife and fork (I like that quality), or just … why? Why consume that lumpy variant when you can eat a pizza instead?

Roundness pleases the human brain; the pizza is engineered to bring contentment. Grabbing a literal piece of the pie, its tapering triangular contour dragging melted strings of mozzarella, makes the world feel righter.

A calzone at Di Fara.

Whether a calzone will be enjoyable is less certain; there’s work involved, there are ratios of ingredients to navigate with each bite. That may be why I favor them. I take pleasure in things that don’t yield reward too easily. (This does not make my life simple.) I ate a lot of pizza growing up in Maryland. Family and friends tended to be happy with pepperoni pies. I longed for those fascinating, fringe-dwelling others — eccentricities like rolled strombolis, their cheese and pepperoni innards looking almost plastic as they sat ignored and over-tanned under the heat lamps. Calzones required investment.

And they created suspense: the surgical use of utensils, the billow of steam that rose after that first incision, the big reveal of their spilling guts. As a kid I wanted to be a spy, not a doctor, but that feeling of operating on a calzone held sway. I never grew out of it. As an adult, this obsession sometimes leads to mockery; a lot of my Eater colleagues openly loathe calzones. It’s fine. We love what we love.

I’m coming up on five years as Eater’s national critic, traveling three weeks out of most months and sometimes more. I haven’t had a permanent place to live in 15 months now. I decided to move to the hippest borough early this year, despite misgivings about New York’s indefensible cost of living and (having lived in a house in Atlanta for nearly a decade) the sacrifice of personal space.

But on the major plus side? Calzones. Rarely do they take front and center on a menu, but this is NYC. Pizzerias are serious business, even if the calzone tags along as a minor Robin to pizza’s Batman (far more Jason Todd, say, than Dick Grayson).

My own superheroic attempts at eating through American cities are how I come to know each town. Finding my favorite calzone in Brooklyn would be a diversion, then — nothing high stakes, nothing like plowing through nine Cajun country boudin stands in one day before a dinner of crawfish. A low-pressure hobby that would help me settle into Brooklyn.

I ate about two dozen calzones over the last six months, particularly this summer. A first early stop, over Presidents Day weekend, was an obvious one: Roberta’s in Williamsburg, arguably the quintessential modern Brooklyn restaurant. The pizzaiolos there respect the calzone. At dinner they bake a variation with mozzarella — no ricotta — tomato, ham, mushroom, and onion. I went for lunch, when the fillings veer even more recognizably to the Italian-American canon: ricotta, mozzarella, pepperoni. The cooks crimped the edges thickly to make a chewy rim, but the ingredient-filled center had a striking air pocket that billowed over the ingredients and kept the thin top layer of dough distinct and crackly.

Two calzones at Giuseppina’s, where the small calzones have a “certain mature refinement.”

At the anti-hipster end of the spectrum was the House of Pizza and Calzone, a counter-service fixture on a leafy street in Cobble Hill since 1952. I was drawn because, yes, the object of my affection is actually acknowledged in the restaurant’s name. The restaurant makes a calzone that hearkens to its ancestry: a misshapen, fried turnover sized modestly enough to be held while walking, filled with ricotta and mozzarella and ham except on Friday, when the ham is omitted (a practice stemming from Catholic traditions). Dissenters might value the dimension and straightforwardness of this forebear; I appreciated it most as a snack calzone.

Plenty of average, innocuous examples issued forth from the ovens of places not worth mentioning. I had an unexpected letdown at Wheated in the Prospect Park South neighborhood. Its meatball calzone had been touted, and I liked the premise: a filling of three cheeses (fresh mozz, aged mozz, and mozzarella) with the bonus of an additional veneer of cheese atop the calzone that goes bubbly and brown while baking. Strangely, the whole thing, especially the crust, managed to taste undersalted.

But this exterior topping business looks to be the vanguard of calzone experimentation: I would send anyone seeking a calzone in Manhattan to Dan Kluger’s avant-garde creation at Loring Place in the West Village. He fills it with house-made ricotta and mozzarella; sausage links (also made in his kitchen) line the curved inner crease. Then he paints the top with sauce and a sprinkling of grated cheese, and finishes it with sliced soppressata. It’s basically a radical pizza-calzone hybrid, and I’m here for it.

Pursuing calzones, it turned out, led me to amble all over Brooklyn: through Prospect Park and up ever-busy Flatbush, past industrial stretches where massive CubeSmart storage units became familiar markers, and down beautiful, shadowed blocks of brownstones. I wandered Albemarle Road, a grand stretch of a thoroughfare with an honest-to-God esplanade down its center, flanked with mansions in a mishmash of architectural styles built over a century ago. All this walking had a practical aspect: Calzones are gut-busters. But now in my mind if someone says the names of Brooklyn neighborhoods to me — Boerum Hill, Crown Heights, Fort Greene, Gowanus, Prospect Heights — I know these places in my mind and in my feet.

The scene outside the always-buzzy Lucali.

My appetite eventually led me to Carroll Gardens and Lucali, Mark Iacono’s 30-seat, candle-lit pizzeria fit for an opera backdrop. He’s known for accommodating celebrities of Beyoncé-level stature, and it is maddening to score a table. I’ve been there once, on the coattails of a friend who had an in. The pizza is incredible, charred and bready and balanced, and it’s one of two dishes in which the restaurant specializes. The other is a calzone, available in small or large; three of us had a large that night, covered with a jungle of basil and so gargantuan it hung over the edges of the tray. It probably had too much cheese, but the tomato sauce alongside was so tart-sweet and pungently seasoned that it cut right through and we kept on going.

Should you not be able to get a table — recently, I arrived at 5:30 p.m., a half hour after a staffer starts taking names for the list, and was quoted a three-hour wait — use an app to call a car and head to Giuseppina’s Brick Oven Pizza in South Slope, a 10-minute ride away. Mark Iacono’s brother Chris Iacono owns the restaurant; he worked at Lucali and opened Giuseppina’s with his brother’s blessing.

The menus at the two restaurants mirror one another closely; the pies and calzones at Giuseppina’s are nearly as exemplary as at Lucali, but without the occultish crowds. Giuseppina’s large calzone erupts ricotta, but the overall effect can sometimes be bland. On my most recent visit, though, I cracked Giuseppina’s calzone code. I went with a friend who is vegetarian. We both ordered small calzones; hers filled with mushrooms and fresh garlic, mine with sausage and peppers. They ended up being the perfect size for a weeknight dinner. We held halves of them in our hands like children gobbling Hot Pockets. But these dapper calzones also possessed a certain refinement. They were as handsomely thin and elegant as, indeed, a trouser leg.

I found my hands-down favorite calzone in Brooklyn this summer. It harnesses the finest qualities of the many calzones I scarfed down into one impressively engineered gold standard. Ops, the pizzeria that serves this grail, resides in a snug Bushwick space packed with the dining room trappings of our era — a hodgepodge of mixed woods (look up; the ceiling is gorgeous), mottled brick, and tiles that calm the senses. Mike Fadem, Marie Tribouilloy, and Gavin Compton opened Ops in October 2016; neighbors flocked to it instantly, and word of its excellence has gradually spread.

Ops’s dough begins with a sourdough starter and includes a smattering of whole-wheat flour milled from grain grown in upstate New York. Both round and thicker square pizzas emerge from its wood-burning ovens. Reading the menu, you wouldn’t know the place makes calzones: It’s a nightly special, usually featuring two ever-changing ingredients. Maybe capicola and dandelion greens, or sausage and escarole, or mushrooms and soppressata.

The calzone, and the dining room, at Ops.

This calzone could probably feed two. It arrives scorched and pocked from its brief exposure to intense heat, which leaves the crust rewardingly chewy in some corners and shatteringly crisp in others. The homemade ricotta keeps its own counsel; it doesn’t demand attention by running immediately onto the plate. As seems to be fashionable in modern pizzerias, the whole shebang comes covered in an extravagant flurry of cheese, with snowfall that particularly hovered over the saucer of tomato sauce alongside.

Each of the three times I ate at Ops, every element of the calzone clicked into equilibrium. I especially savored the liberal fistfuls of greens that can show up inside; their bitterness adds welcome tension to the whole affair.

More than my stomach rumbling with desire, when I think about these meals now, I recall the experience as a warmth in my chest. I wanted to physically hoard the feeling of relishing something for the pure joy of it. When you don’t have a permanent address, what else reminds you who you are?

It’s past time that I find a home. Two weeks into the Brooklyn experiment, I knew the plan wasn’t going to stick. I’ve lived in sprawling Sunbelt cities for overly long now. My community of New York friends did their best to persuade me; one even volunteered to help decorate a studio apartment like a hotel room to make the transition easier. This just isn’t my place. I’m back to wandering, though my time eating New York calzones — and the time between eating calzones — grounded me long enough to remind my bones what it’s like to actually live somewhere.

Where do I belong now? No answers yet, except for this: Food is communion, and communion is a kind of homecoming, and I’m as at home dismantling the near-perfect calzone at Ops as I am anywhere in the world.

Some of Bill’s favorite calzones in New York:

Ops: 346 Himrod Street, Brooklyn, (718) 386-4009

Di Fara: 1424 Avenue J, Brooklyn, (718) 258-1367

Giuseppina’s Brick Oven Pizza: 691 6th Avenue, Brooklyn, (718) 499-5052

Lucali: 575 Henry St, Brooklyn, (718) 858-4086

Pizza Moto: 338 Hamilton Avenue, Brooklyn, (718) 834-6686

Loring Place: 21 West 8th Street, New York, (212) 388-1831

Motorino: 349 East 12th Street, New York, (212) 777-2644

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