Henry street sits on the far West side of Carroll Gardens. It’s a block from the BQE, and from Union Street you can see Red Hook, beyond that the river, beyond that the skyline. It’s removed from Carroll Garden’s central hub of mixologist bars and Michelin recognized restaurants on Smith and Court, more sleepy and reserved with businesses scattered rather than condensed. It’s also where you can find one of New York’s most interesting pizzas, and no, I’m not referring to Lucali’s.
Francesco’s, (531 Henry St., at the corner of Union, 718-834-0863) formerly Nino’s, was bought two and a half years ago by Mazzola Bakery, a neighborhood institution and trusted producer of breads, croissants and cookies directly across the street, on the southeast corner of the intersection where Union crosses Henry. Mazzola’s signature item, what separates it from the scores of coffee and cake shops littering scenic corners from Red Hook to Prospect Heights, is their lard bread. Lard bread is an addictive dough made from a standard flour, yeast, margarine compound flavored with diced salami, provolone cheese, black pepper, vegetable lard and pork lard. The dough is optimized in several forms, as a loaf, as a roll, as a pretzel, but their most creative application can be found across the street, where it served as crust for Francesco’s Lard Bread Pie.
By all appearances Francesco’s is a mild mannered neighborhood red sauce joint that feels homogeneous in its removed corner of Brooklyn. It’s split between a sit down restaurant and an adjoining pizzeria with booths. Both sides are homey and modest; in the pizzeria ESPN plays on a flat-screen mounted in the corner. On a visit mid-December Sinatra was signing melancholy renderings of holiday standards and the decor resembled a deconstructed Christmas tree. The menu is stuffed with American Italian staples, Eggplant parm, fried shellfish, sausage and peppers.
The plain slice is passable, that generic New York slice that would be at home on any corner in Manhattan, but you’d be foolish to skip the lard bread slice - order a pie if you have the time and audience. The pie resembles those Elio’s-like cafeteria slices you loved in Grade school because you didn’t know any better, but there’s a sleek thinness that avoids the Sicilian style label the pie’s shape demands. The drawback, what keeps it from serious discussion, is apparent on grabbing your first slice, as that first piece separates reluctantly from its whole. The pie is blanketed by a down quilt of industrial strength, bargain basement mozzarella, a chore to contend with even straight out of the oven. But the canvas is the attraction, like its obese cousin at L&B Spumoni; cheese is entirely beside the point.
The pizza’s thin perimeter resembles nothing so much as a flaky pie crust, and that’s a good way to begin considering it. A peak at the underside reveals a labyrinthine crust full of pleasantly brown crevices that add an extra crunch. Beneath that crunch the slice is chewy but not doughy. The salami and black pepper provide a salty heat present in every bite, while the lard and cheese contribute a buttery unctuousness, grease you can taste on the tongue you don’t have to contend with on the plate, it all makes for huge, balanced but dangerously close to overwhelming flavor.
The Francesco’s Lard Bread Pie is a bold experiment, by your third or fourth slice, one a pizza connoisseur may deem unsuccessful. Regardless, that first bite is full of fun, and this attempt certainly deserves a place as an exotic entry in New York’s pizza vernacular.