Being a celebrity chef, for better or worse, means great expectations for every project you do, whether you’re David Chang dipping into highbrow food publishing or Guy Fieri fronting a Times Square junk box. Punky blond dessert whiz Elizabeth Falkner saw her celeb stock rocket on The Next Iron Chef, where she twice came close to winning. And though she held her own in savory main-course showdowns under kitchen stadium’s bright lights, it’s a surprise that she didn’t capitalize on her madcap sweets reputation for her big New York debut. Instead of importing eccentric treats from her (now shuttered) San Francisco bakery Citizen Cake—the flaming “s’more-a-palooza,” say, or “tiramishushi”—she’s opened a pretty generic Brooklyn pizzeria.
Given the city’s pizza glut, Krescendo might have opened as quietly as an Off Broadway clunker, if not for the big West Coast star in the kitchen. Though her blistered Neapolitan-style rounds feature excellent crispy crust, her pizzas are rarely on par with New York’s best—standard-bearers like Motorino and Kesté. The Margherita “Extra,” finished with mealy cherry tomatoes, is a bit too soggy with tomato puree. The Californication, a busy white pie, features an overabundance of Golden State flavors—bitter arugula pesto, spicy shishito peppers, goat cheese and honey. And while the Finocchio Flower Power, topped in a rich gutsy mix of heavy cream, crumbled sausage, sharp provolone and braised fennel, earned Falkner a first place trophy in Naples’ Caputo Cup last spring, one winning pie is hardly the makings of a new pizza star nor compensation for a restaurant with many shortcomings.
Krescendo’s unadorned Brooklyn dining room looks like a run-of-the-mill neighborhood tavern with exposed brick and dark bistro tables. Service is genial but not very attentive—you might wait 40 minutes for starters while the chef hobnobs out of the kitchen with guests.
Those appetizers, by the way, are a pretty sad bunch. There are gray meatballs, dense as a cat’s chew toy, in a tart phosphorescent tomato sauce. An underdressed kale salad tastes healthy in the worst way, despite the hunks of candied pancetta hidden among its thick woody leaves. Flaky poached cod anchors another bland dish, with low-sodium white beans, black olives and celery. Only the fregola a la sarde—one of a handful of pastas—has much punch, the saffron-tinged Sardinian couscous tossed with a symphonic mix of potent sardines and anchovies, capers and currants.
Desserts, even the understated selection of chilled and frozen sweets, showcase, clearly, where Falkner’s real talents lie. A deconstructed cassata, rich with tangy ricotta cream, pistachio sponge cake and Campari-soaked cherries, is complex and delicious. And a free-form tartufo, with cold gianduja semifreddo, dripping caramel sauce and perfumey tangerine dust, proved gorgeously gooey. These reformulated Italian classics are as spirited as everything here ought to be. While a move from pastry to pizza isn’t a radical shift, certainly, for such a versatile chef, there’s much more to running a great New York pizzeria these days than simply nailing the dough.
Eat this: Finocchio Flower Power pizza, fregola a la sarde, cassata, tartufo
Drink this: The top-notch cocktails by Darren Crawford, formerly of San Francisco’s Bourbon & Branch, include the Meli Amara, a sort of spiced apple Manhattan with Applejack and Barolo Chinato ($12). The can centric beer list includes the full range of Sixpoint tallboys ($6 apiece).
Conversation piece: Falkner learned to make pizza last year at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco. That restaurant’s Brooklyn-born manager (and part owner), Nancy Puglisi, is a Krescendo co-owner too.
By Jay Cheshes