Dining out with Moira Hodgson

‘Way Out’ Pizza

In the West Village

Ever get a hankering for grilled watermelon pizza? You’ll find it at Gonzo, an Italian restaurant that opened early this summer in a brownstone in the West Village. The chef entered a competition for watermelon recipes and came up with a dish he liked so much, he put it on the menu. So, with your interests at heart, dear reader, I ordered it the other night, ready to adopt the sort of expression an explorer wears when he’s served a tribal dish of boiled sheep’s eyes. Moments later, the waiter pushed aside our glasses to make room for an enormous pizza that he set down in the middle of the table. It was a free-form, lopsided circle of ultra-thin, charred and completely flat crust that was topped with slivers of prosciutto, oiled arugula leaves and thin shavings of Parmesan. Where was the

watermelon?

“Never mind,” said one of my friends, who could barely conceal her relief. “Obviously he brought the wrong pizza, but this looks delicious.”

It was delicious-but the watermelon was there. You came upon it unexpectedly when you bit down: sweet, juicy cubes lurked underneath the other ingredients that took you by surprise. The melon added a fruity note that complemented both the ham and the cheese, cutting their saltiness. It was a great combination, and we all agreed it was one of the best pizzas we’d ever tasted.

The margherita is also wonderful, topped with a bubbling layer of Bel Paese and Romano cheeses and fresh tomatoes. Another combination consists of a spicy eggplant purée, tomato sauce and three cheeses; yet another is made with mashed potatoes and corn. The sopressata, ricotta and roasted red-pepper purée was a bit too salty from the meat, but the crust, like all the others, was perfect.

Gonzo’s chef, Vincent Scotto (who is also a co-owner with his sister Donna) is justly famous for the grilled pizzas that he originated at the legendary Al Forno in Providence, R.I. His secret is to spread the dough out on a large pan and cover it in olive oil, rather than proofing it with a flour coating. He then drapes the flattened dough on the grill, cooks it on one side and flips it over. “The trick is to go sparingly with the topping so you don’t make the dough soggy,” he once told me. “Too much and you lose the whole effect.”

Mr. Scotto first introduced his pizzas to New York about five years ago at the wildly popular Fresco by Scotto (no relation) in midtown. Three years ago he took them to Scopa, an eccentric spot in Murray Hill. Both these restaurants are quite expensive and appeal mainly to a well-heeled business clientele. His new venture is younger, cheaper and more “downtown.” You can come here late at night just for pizza and cocktails, or to snack on sliced meats and Italian cheeses in Gonzo’s snazzy red front lounge. There’s also an extensive list of antipasti that includes a chunky, caper-loaded eggplant caponata, a salad of roasted beets and gorgonzola, and the Sicilian specialty: sardines marinated with sweet and sour onions, golden raisins and pine nuts.

Mr. Scotto, a stocky man with a shaved head, is much in evidence at the new restaurant. He patrols the excruciatingly noisy dining room on a hot night wearing a white chef’s jacket and khaki shorts.

“Guess they didn’t hire a feng shui specialist,” said my son as we sat down on our first visit. No school refectory gets louder than this: The combination of a hardwood floor, a soaring hardwood ceiling and bare walls makes the place into an echo chamber (they are working on improving the sound insulation). The décor is Spartan, with cream-colored walls-punctuated by tall windows-that are unadorned but for little lamps that cast a harsh lighting overhead. It’s nicer to sit in the small courtyard at the front of the restaurant, overlooking the white Grecian pillars of St. John’s Church. The lone lamp out there, however, could use a cloth over it. The bulb is so bright that if you’re seated facing it, you can’t see a thing.

But these are all things that can easily be fixed. In the meantime, cover your ears, turn away from the light and enjoy the food, beginning with the foccaccia that starts off the meal and arrives in a basket with sliced country bread and a creamy dip made with chickpeas. Mr. Scotto has brought with him one of his hits from Scopa: a salad made with thick rounds of sweet grilled onion, croutons rubbed with garlic, shaved Parmesan, parsley, lemon and olive oil. Thimble-sized Manila clams, sautéed with olive oil, crushed pepper, garlic and white wine, make another lovely first course.

A couple of main dishes don’t show Mr. Scotto at his best: the gummy orrechiette with sausage, a special one day, or the pork tenderloin with applesauce that was surprisingly bland despite its cracked fennel and black-pepper crust. Floppy ribbons of pappardelle come in a light buttery sauce of fresh corn, tomatoes and basil. It’s too much of a one-note dish for a main dish, though: I would prefer half the amount as a first course. Chicken roasted under a brick with lemon and sage, however, comes out nicely burnished. And the pièce de résistance is Mr. Scotto’s 36-ounce rib steak that supposedly serves two to three people. Perhaps it’s my deprived British childhood, but this steak-which Mr. Scotto says he cuts from a dry-aged whole prime rib he butchers himself-looks big enough to keep a family of six happy.

There are 64 wines on the Italian list, all of which are available by the glass, quartino or full bottle, and there’s also a reserve list. The wines are inexpensive and well chosen, many from lesser-known vineyards. For dessert, the espresso gelato packs a punch. The peach cobbler is doughy, but the panna cotta is perfect: It’s light and creamy and is served with caramel squiggles on the plate.

As we sat in the dining room one night, my son and I watched a handsome young Dutch couple eating course after course. “They must be really hungry!” said my son, who could not take his eyes off the couple-both of whom were extremely thin. At last, after the woman had finished several courses and was working her way through a plate of liver and onions, I could hold back no longer. “Are you two chefs?” I asked. They laughed, “Heavens, no!” the woman replied. “But we’re friends of his. I’ve never eaten so much food in my life!”

The name Gonzo is Tuscan slang for “original” or “way out.” Watermelon pizza is certainly gonzo . Like so much of Mr. Scotto’s food, it’s a dish created by someone who has a love for simple ingredients and knows how to put them together just right.