On a recent trip to Brooklyn, I caught up with SF’s own Elizabeth Falkner at Krescendo, where she was manning (or shall we say womanning) the ovens for owner and native Brooklynite Nancy Puglisi (of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in North Beach). After shuttering the famed Citizen Cake and Orson, and in between gigs on reality shows like Top Chef and Iron Chef America, Falkner relocated and turned her attention to classic Italian dishes and Neapolitan pizza.
In short order she scooped up first prize at the World Pizza Championship in Naples with her Finocchio Flower Power pizza, a combination that relies heavily on fennel—the fronds, the flowers, the pollen—making her the first woman to take home the Caputo Cup. Since we spoke, Falkner has left Krescendo to become chef at the new Corvo Bianco on Manhattan’s West Side, slated to open next month. The 225-seat “coastal Italian” restaurant will keep the focus on Falkner’s latent obsession with Italy. Look for grilled pizzas, housemade pastas, antipasti, oysters, plus lots of carnivore options. And this is Elizabeth Falkner, so save room for dessert.
Why New York and why pizza?
I went to Rome with my mom in 2010 and had the best carbonara and all’amatriciana I’ve ever had in my life. I became friends with Barbara Lynch [chef/owner of Menton, Sportello, and No. 9 Park in Boston]. I was friends with Shelly Lindgren [of A16 and SPQR]. I made pasta all these years but I was kind of blown away by Matt [Accarrino]’s at SPQR. So I suddenly found myself obsessed with Italian food. Looking at the California cuisine model there is the beauty and simplicity of the food that’s really honest and all about the ingredients. And then I became obsessed with pizza. When I met Nancy, I said, 'I really like your restaurant, it’s what people want, but it lacks amazing antipasti and desserts.' Nancy said that one day she wanted to open a restaurant in her hometown of Brooklyn. I was thinking about how I’d love to cook in New York and then things became crazy at Orson and I had to close it, and my long relationship ended, and I thought, 'Well, maybe I should just move. I love SF but maybe I should consider the East Coast.' I was in the middle of all this Iron Chef stuff and Nancy suddenly said, 'Let’s go to Naples to the World Pizza Competition. Women never compete.' So of course I was like, 'Sign me up!' I went to the International School of Pizza for eight days and got certified.
So you switch to pizza and right off the bat you’re the first American woman to win the World Pizza Competition in Naples. Were you a little shocked at such quick success?
I was like, “They just called my name, that’s crazy.” But if you think about it, my first Citizen Cake had a wood-fired oven and we made lunch pizzas there, minimal ingredients but inventive. I just had not seen Neapolitan pizza back then. Orson had a wood-fired oven too and we did pizzas. I was into the dough. I mean, dough is not foreign to my background. It’s not a big jump for me. I just became much more focused on understanding Neapolitan and there are some rules around it. But in Naples I entered the Classic Italian category. It’s freestyle and you can use Italian ingredients. You should see the diverse things people do: French guys putting on gold leaf, trying to make it more artistic. So I was wondering what kind to make, and I kept going to the markets, and fennel was in season. It was everywhere. Why don’t you ever see it on pizza? And I kept thinking I’m going to use it, but I’m not going to use tomatoes because everyone uses them. And I love fennel pollen, to me it’s like a secret weapon, it slaps you in the face with that fennel taste. I got some fennel sausage and a bunch of cheese. Nancy was saying, 'Well you might want to use a little tomato,' and I was like, 'I don’t think so.'
What do you like most about New York?
The total change in weather and environment. In winter I get to experience walking to work in the snow. We all romanticize what it’s like to live in a new place, and now I’m doing it. I got here last July in horrible humidity and I was thinking I might have to start wearing skirts, which is a problem because all my clothes are black jeans. But I love the contrast between SF and here. I’ve always thought Northern California had the best watermelon, but last summer I was at a restaurant called Noodle Pudding in Brooklyn Heights, and it was so hot out and they served ice-cold wedges of watermelon with limoncello. I swear it was the best thing I ever put in my mouth.
What do you miss most about SF?
The coffee. There’s some good coffee here but it’s not as widespread. SF is ridiculous: Sightglass, Four Barrel, Blue Bottle. What’s fun now is to be able to go to SF as a visitor and experience it in different way. Last time I was there to judge a ScharffenBerger competition and it was so great to land in SFO. I know the light so well and the weather. I know what’s in the farmers market every month of the year. The familiarity is so comfortable, but I love challenges—clearly because I love all this reality TV—and I love adventure, so I love being on this new adventure.