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a park slope/gowanus and brooklyn heights coal-fired-oven pizzeria celebrates high-temperature crust crispness

by Derek de Koff • Photos by alex barreto

“We’re a fully ‘Made-in-Brooklyn’ operation,” said Thomas Cucco, the Bensonhurst-born proprietor of Table 87 Coal Oven Pizza—talking two-and-a-half miles a minute between forkfuls of broccoli rabe. “What a Table 87 newbie needs to know right off the bat,” he explained, emphasizing each word by puncturing the air with his fork, “is that we’re the only pizzeria in Brooklyn that serves coal-oven pizza by the slice.”

Possibly on cue, a parade of polite and seemingly tireless waiters approach the table, laying out an arsenal of dishes: a 12″ Margherita pie with locally-made fresh mozzarella; another piled with house-made sausage and roasted red peppers, and a serving of broccoli rabe with orecchiette pasta and sausage.

If you’re in a hurry and don’t have time to live dinner life quite this large, you can stop in to grab a to-go slice of their classic Margherita. It’ll put you back $4.00, making it safely within the pricey realm, but good enough after a few bites to make accounting seem silly.

“Coal-oven pizza, by the slice,” Cucco repeated, savoring the words and wiping his mouth with a balled-up napkin. “We needed something—anything— in order to stand out in an overcrowded market. I mean, with over 5,000 pizzerias in New York, you gotta do something, right?” And even while offering a range of calzones, Italian sandwiches, and paninis (the Grilled Free Range Chicken Panini—with mozzarella and basil pesto and served on ciabatta or baguette, is a standout), there’s clearly a culinary star of the show here.

When asked how the idea for Table 87 was born, Cucco—who’d worked in property development until 2008—said it all goes back to his childhood, when he was stranded far, far out in the lonely expanses of Bensonhurst; a land where no mere child could easily get his hands around a slice of fresh-out-of-the-coal-oven pizza.

“It was nerve-wracking,” he deadpanned.

To a kid growing up in those days, a pizza pie fresh out of such an oven was the stuff of near myth—spiced with the romance and nostalgia for old New York. Wood is fine (sure, whatever), but coal just burns hotter.

The catch is that coal-fueled ovens in the city are subject to a stringent series of particulate emissions standards (grandfathered ovens were occasionally spared), and new but very pricey hybrid gas/coal models are also legal, with crisp, smoky, and savory results. One of the first hurdles facing Table 87 was how to build such an oven and take advantage of innovations that let them make, in effect, coal-fired fare. We’ll spare readers the nuts and-bolts, but the results are delectable.

It was a savvy business move, but perhaps not quite as savvy as the Table 87 Frozen retail line of gourmet pizza currently available at 300 supermarkets in the tri-state area, including Whole Foods Market, Fairway Market, Union Market, Uncle Guiseppe’s, Zabars, Morton Williams, and several other independent stores. There is also a fall launch planned with Fresh Direct, and the Table 87 website allows for online purchasing and shipping nationally. Finally, it will unveil a Gluten-Free 10″ Margarita pie, along with their topped pizzas: a Mushroom with White Truffle Oil and the Prosciutto di Parma.

Picture it: a slice of bona fide New York pizza that one can enjoy fresh from any corner of the world, whether Weehawken, New Jersey or Terre Haute, Indiana. The idea may well prove to be Cucco’s masterstroke.

“I wasn’t satisfied just selling my pizza out of the two stores,” he said. (There’s one brick-and-mortar restaurant in Gowanus, another in Brooklyn Heights.) “I wanted to get more and more of my pizza out there into the world!”

The Frozen 10″ Coal Oven Margherita Pizza Pie allows him do just that. It’s a precooked product—“Handmade in Brooklyn!”—that folks simply heat up in a toaster oven and serve in four minutes or so.

As we polished off the last of the dessert (I was full before the entrees ended, but writing is demanding), Cucco had his eye on the horizon again, this time testing out potential slogans for his frozen pie.

“‘From freezer to table in minutes!’” he improvised, as a waiter swung by to refill our glasses of red wine.

“What about, ‘From our table… to yours…?’”

Table 87
473 3rd Avenue / 718.965.8400
87 Atlantic Avenue / 718.797.9300
table87.com