WHEN TOMMY HABETZ, co-founder of Bunk Sandwiches, first started talking about opening a pizzeria—one that would be an ode to his time as a young chef in New York in the '90s—visions of Cubano pizzas floated through my head. Coming from the creator of the city's most iconic sandwiches, just think of the magic he could work with cheese and sauce!
Over the course of a year, Habetz's planned Moon Pizza got a name change to Pizza Jerk, found a spot on NE 42nd, and installed a high-quality electric oven for the perfect char.
"I have the need to knead," he told the Mercury last April. "I can deny my inner pizza child no longer."
If this is Habetz's midlife attempt to relive his childhood, I'm grateful he's not a motorcycle guy. From the plastic red-and-white checkered tablecloths, to the vintage Pac-Man console, to the haphazardly hung posters of Blondie and travel destinations, Pizza Jerk is very much a flashback to the parlors of yore. Hot damn, there are even disco lights by the bathroom.
But the casual, quirky atmosphere belies serious pizza. The pies are monumental: They easily take up most of the real estate at a two-person table. They're a New York/New Haven hybrid with a thin crust that can only sustain a few toppings before folding, and a generous edge of dough that's a salty delight to eat. And the sauce... it's my platonic ideal—fire engine red, acidic, and bright with very little sweetness.
Pizza Jerk's menu, scrawled on a tough-to-see chalkboard, is a playground for Habetz's whims. Two-bite pizza pockets ($9) are a fantastic appetizer option (best paired with an Afterschool Special), and a fried rice dish ($10) is listed under the pasta section. There's very much a sense that Habetz thought, "I like that, so I'm going to make it."
After eating my way through most of the menu, the eggplant parmigiano pizza ($22) was my favorite. Cheese and basil top that gorgeous marinara, along with layers of breaded eggplant that stay miraculously crisp and flavorful. I'd never had anything like it before, and yet it felt like I grew up ordering it once a week.
Even the pepperoni pie ($20), with a choice of either pepperoni cured at Old Salt or Molinari, is a little slice of heaven. A special, the Han Dynasty ($25), successfully paired Podnah's Pit brisket (it pays to have friends in high places, no?) with jalapeños, goat cheese, fried shallots, Bee Local honey, and Korean barbecue sauce. The only problem? All that goodness quickly slides right off the crust, which is also a problem for the other generously topped options.
There are a few other places where the menu needs to grow up. I blew my deadline to try the Clam Jam pizza ($26), but large pieces of bacon overwhelmed the delicate clams and white sauce. The Dan Dan noodles ($12) are advertised as candied spicy pork, but the sugar-to-heat ratio skews toward saccharine.
Opt for the meatball parmigiano sub ($10) instead. (No way a Bunk enterprise would ditch sandwiches!) Share it and a Caesar salad ($9) with a friend for lunch. The crisp anchovy salad gives a kick to the basil-laden meatballs drenched in marinara and mozzarella tucked between two slabs of garlic bread.
Get the kids to eat their veggies with the promise of dessert pizza ($10), a treat that small humans (and stoned adults) heretofore only dreamed of. Right now, there are two: the insane-sounding Bananarama with banana crema, pineapples, chocolate, marshmallow, cherries, caramel, and a scoop of ice cream. The apple streusel has more direction with thicker, gooier dough, apple slices, tasty caramel, and a crunchy topping with a scoop of house-made vanilla ice cream.
To order, get in line and then grab a seat—recently there have been hour-plus waits, although we got a table upon arrival on our last two visits. There's a great beer tap list with favorites like Pfriem and Buoy on rotation, wine, and a cocktail list that just kicked into action last week. Egg creams and milk are there for the kiddos.
There are tons of kids around, especially before 7:30 pm. But that's great. This is just the place for them. Pizza Jerk is a democratic spot: Any given night it's filled with whole families, socks-and-sandals types, and the requisite beardy flannel guys.
As Habetz said last year: "I think pizza is always the people's choice." Well, Pizza Jerk should be anyway.
Sun-Thurs, 11:30 am-9 pm, Fri-Sat 11:30 am-10 pm. To-go orders available. No reservations. Get in line, order, and then grab a seat.