You’re not gonna win any awards for ordering the St. Louie pie at Speedy Romeo, that’s for sure. It’s a demented pizza mutation whose greatest crime is the addition of Provel, a processed “cheese” product that’s beige in color, plastic in taste, and rubbery in consistency. If you can actually finish off the Brooklyn-born pizzeria’s sort-of refined take on the national dish of St. Louis, Missouri, then by all means, give yourself a pat on the back– you’re officially a monster. For the rest of us, the real pizza at the new Lower East Side outpost of Speedy Romeo is good reason to avoid that cheese-product science project.
The original Speedy Romeo, opened in 2012 inside an old auto-parts shop in Clinton Hill, is constantly, sometimes ridiculously packed– so much so that I always assumed “Speedy” was a joke about the wait. For those of us who live in the Bed-Stuy area and have spent many hungry hours waiting to mouth those perfect wood-burned pies, the new, even bittier location is a welcome development chiefly because it might help out the home team by ridding us of the bridge-and-tunnel travelers from Manhattan who clog up our beloved neighborhood restaurants. But the new location’s brand new menu items (including a Lower-East-Side-inspired pizza, the “Paul’s Boutique,” topped with Katz’s pastrami) might even attract loyal Brooklynites to their Clinton Street digs.
Last night, I checked out the new Speedy Romeo location, spread out across the former homes of Fatta Cuckoo and Cube Sushi, where the owners have injected the same sort of unabashedly kitschy accents found at their Brooklyn spot, though with something like a little less restraint. The place sort of resembles a 1990s Applebee’s, with its plethora of oversized Americana antiques and speed-racer style points. Thanks to low, nighttime vibey lighting, the color palette of Italian race-car red, bright yellow, and oil-slick black spilled onto the wood floors appears sort of garage-like. But the smell here isn’t from engine grease– instead it’s delicious pizza grease.
Hidden lolz do a lot to break up the cheese factor, though– a non-smoking sign with a young Obama puffing on a doobie, and a framed photo of Willie Nelson behind the bar remind us that the chef and owner are, probably, just like us! In the bathroom, there’s a sort of absurd soundtrack on loop, a play-by-play of a moto-race of some sort, which also serves a utilitarian purpose– it certainly inspired me to pee and flee like a madman.
Last night people were pouring into the private opening party, and before servers could get their platters even a few feet past the open kitchen– with a red and white, old school, wood fire burning pizza oven at center stage– guests were grabbing at the slices, entangling themselves in trails of cheese.
I couldn’t really blame them, though– Speedy Romeo makes the kind of pizza that elicits passionate responses. Of course this new location offers classics like the margherita and an anchovy-spike marinara, in addition to all the specialty pies from the Brooklyn HQ, including the “Kind Brother” (mushrooms, mozzarella, egg, sage) and Speedy’s take on the Hawaiian pizza– the “Dick Dale,” an ode to the surf-rock legend topped with speck, pineapple, grilled scallions, and the scandalous addition of Provel. In deference to their new neighborhood, Speedy went ahead and added the “Paul’s Boutique” pizza that, in addition to Katz’s pastrami, includes “dijon bechamel, smoked red kraut fontina, 100 island dressing, and everything crust,” which sounds like what would happen if Julia Child slept with a Jewish-deli sandwich.
At the opening, I was hunched over the horseshoe bar when a woman inquired after why I wasn’t yet grabbing at the romaine boats filled with anchovy, lemon, and parmesan dust, a preview of Speedy’s classic Caesar salad, or wolfing down the kabob sampler of the 16 oz. strip steak. I told her that alcohol was my first priority, and I meant it– thankfully for me and the rest of my people, this location has a full liquor license (unlike the beer-and-wine constraints at the original location) and a bulging cocktail menu to boot.
Cocktails are divided into “smoking” and “non-smoking” varieties. The former includes the “Hot Trot,” a Pimm’s Cup-inspired spritz with Aperol, sparkling rosé, smoked jalapeño rhubarb, lemon, soda, and basil, as well as a notably boozy offering, the “Diver Down” with Rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, and finally a “ciociaro brûléed cinnamon stick,” which sounds great even if I have no earthly idea what any of that means.
The food selection too is expansive, with a full non-pizza menu so big that it’s worthy of its own restaurant. There are some out-there Italian inspired creations like the peekytoe crab crostini with “nasturtium vinaigrette, spring vegetables, and wood-roasted artichoke with lemon aioli, spring greens, mint.” Some Italian-American classics like chicken parmesan made the cut, and Speedy’s even sprang for American fare like a hefty half-pound cheeseburger and pork chop.
But back to that St. Louis pizza. The chef, Justin Bazdarich, isn’t actually from the Missouri city with the big arch. His father is. Bazdarich grew up in Kansas City and attended Arizona State University, but those distant roots in the city that can’t make up its mind about whether it’s Southern or Midwestern, are apparently enough to inspire the chef’s love for Provel.
It makes sense that the St. Louis take on pizza, like the city itself, has something of an identity crisis. The thin-crust pie defies all logic with its “cracker-like crust” and rectangular cut pattern– arguably the worst way to slice a rounded pie, since the shape eliminates the possibility of there being even one slice with the perfect crust to cheese to sauce ratio. As for that Provel, it’s inevitably burnt and sticky, thanks to its low melting point, and anyway it doesn’t even have the privilege of calling itself cheese (it’s so processed that it’s categorized as a “cheese product”). And yet this faux-cheese manages to maintain a loyal cult following among the kind of people who would argue that Chicago deep-dish also qualifies as pizza (no). Though even Provel’s biggest fans admit that it tastes like “melted plastic from the ’80s.”
You can bet there’s going to be a wait at Speedy Romeo 2.0– one that’s totally worth it, I might add– even if that Provel za isn’t winning any elections.
Speedy Romeo’s second location is at 63 Clinton Street on the Lower East Side. See the food and drink menus below.