On a cold winter evening, I unlocked some golden secrets of pizza making. I was speaking—over pizza, what else—to Frank Kabatas, the man behind East Village Pizza, which has been going strong since the Dutch were in charge.
I exaggerate. But still, since 1997, nearly 18 years, a lifetime in restaurant longevity. Kabatas was so enthusiastic about pizza making that he would divulge a technique and then catch himself: that’s off the record, he said.
These secrets go back to a pizzeria where Kabatas worked as a student, on West Third and MacDougal. It’s long gone now, but the owner, a 65-year-old Italian man, showed Kabatas the Neapolitan secrets of his craft. “Showed” is right—Kabatas spoke such little English at that time, that it was all through sign language, he said.
Now for the pizza: it’s made with all real ingredients that you can pronounce, for one thing. Surprising as it may sound, it’s not something to be taken for granted. For example, either you can make a good dough, or you can use additives to keep it pliable for days, Kabatas explained.
There are the usual suspects like Margherita, but also some surprising ones: the first one that caught my eye was the one with pepperoni and thin-sliced jalapeños.
“It’s strangely becoming one of the more popular pizzas,” Kabatas said. After a tasting, I would say, not so strange, after all.
The list of pizzas and toppings comes largely inspired—and certainly tested—by customers, a menu by the people, for the people in a way. Kabatas spends about a solid two hours a day getting direct feedback from customers. “You can make a gold pizza,” but if you don’t know what your customers want, you can’t sell it, he added.
The lasagna pizza, too, was first made at the behest of a customer. It turned into a house favorite.
One of my favorite slices was the eggplant pizza, made with fresh eggplant, sliced and fried ($16 for 16-inch; $19 for 18-inch). You can’t go wrong with fried eggplant. It’s fragrant, nutty, and creamy.
Pizza by the slice runs from $2.50 to $4.
The real secrets here, though, are Turkish.
The Black Sea Pie, known only to insiders, ought to make East Village Pizza a destination. Adapted from Kabatas’s home village in a rainy region of Turkey abutting the Black Sea, it’s worth waiting for.
That’s because it is made from scratch and never reheated, unlike a slice of pizza. It’s baked a little differently from the pizza on-premises, though Kabatas won’t tell how. Oblong-shaped, the pie consists of an addictive golden crust—neither too much nor too little it seems—with a variety of toppings.
The original includes diced tomatoes and bell peppers—seasoned with spices—along with cheese, Turkish pastrami, and salami ($11). But you can also ask for whatever you like on it. I also had a vegetable one, with nothing more than tomatoes, red and green bell peppers, and cheese, and it was supremely satisfying ($10).
I don’t know what it was about it—maybe the shape, I’m not a physicist—that seemed to keep all parts crunchy—or the way it was cut on the bias—so it never became saggy the way that the tapered end of a pizza slice sometimes does.
Another surprise was the Grilled Chicken Salad ($11 small; $13 large). The chicken is actually grilled kebabs and delicious (a specialty of Kabatas’s brother, Mel). They’re set over a perfectly dressed salad made to order and tastes super fresh.
Both Kabatas and his brother have a fair amount of obsession keeping tabs on all aspect of pizza making (Kabatas by day, his brother by night—the pizza spot is open till 5 a.m.) as well as customers’ wants. It’s an obsession that benefits us all.
East Village Pizza & Kebabs
145 First Ave. (at East Ninth Street)
Daily 11 a.m.–5 a.m.