Somehow people got it into their heads that Chazz: A Bronx Original was a glorified pizza parlor. Maybe it was the pre-opening articles that documented the pizza discovery tours and fact-finding missions embarked upon by the principals involved with this flashy and thoroughly engaging new Harbor East restaurant.
I wrote several of them myself.
The pizza at Chazz, produced by an imported and lovingly tended coal-fire oven, is admirable, close to heavenly, but there are other things to love here, some of them maybe even more.
Chazz: A Bronx Original is a collaboration between the actor Chazz Palminteri and the sons of Aldo Vitale, whose Little Italy restaurant provided the setting for the meeting of our main characters. It was here, at Aldo's, that Palminteri finally met the restaurateurs with the experience to make real his longtime dreams of restaurant ownership. For Sergio and Allesandro Vitale, Palminteri was the actor who walked in from the cold with a marketable name, a real passion for food and access to some pretty deep pockets.
Their bringing to life of Chazz: A Bronx Original was by most accounts one of the those rare happy collaborations that happen when people gifted with good taste, above-average intelligence and abundant resources come together. Palminteri evidently meant it when he said he'd be a hands-on presence at Chazz — he was there when I visited for this review, having come down from his New York home to throw out the first ball at an Orioles game and do some gratis publicity for the Baltimore Grand Prix.
Palminteri, in short, likes Baltimore to pieces, which definitely makes it a lot easier to swallow the idea of erecting a shrine, not two blocks from Baltimore's own Little Italy, for the worship of Palminteri's beloved Bronx. The restaurant's design, executed in collaboration with Rita St. Clair Associates, is an uncanny success. That it manages, mainly through use of painting, flooring and accents, to present a glimpse into Palminteri's memory bank is a triumph of tact and wit — block glass at the entrance suggests the bar setting of "A Bronx Tale," the white brick fronting the pizza oven recalls the baroque designs of old subway stations and a raised dining platform re-creates an elevated train station.
All of this unites in a whole that will please most people. There have been stray complaints about the tables being too close together. A New Yorker would find that funny. They are close but not uncomfortably so. I know the noise level, which I found well within bearable limits, will trouble some diners. The weakest aspect to the atmosphere is the bar, which suffers from being sliced right down its middle by a load-bearing wall. The design trade-off, having the bar visible from the sidewalk, doesn't seem worth it, and the service at the bar suffers, too.
The kitchen at Chazz, which effectively plays third fiddle behind the virtuosic environment and the featured pizza, plays beautifully. Discerning diners will lend the kitchen their ears.
What's worth having? Just about everything, but a few things are essential case-makers for the kitchen's savvy balancing of traditional forms with contemporary aesthetic. Whipped ricotta puts a contemporary twist on a flamboyant veal meatball appetizer. I promise you that no Bronx restaurant in the 1950s — or home, for that matter — was putting together gorgeous caprese salads from snow-white burrata cheese and Vatican-red tomatoes, or serving up a carpaccio composed of beef tenderloin sliced unusually thick to emphasize its radical tenderness.
A veal Milanese back then may have begun with a cutlet as tender and thin as the one at Chazz, but would it have been finished off with such fresh tomatoes and arugula? What I'm getting at is that the food at Chazz respects a certain cuisine without re-creating it. Did the restaurants of Palminteri's Bronx traffic in brussels sprouts roasted with pancetta? Even a dish like shrimp parmigiana — from the menu's hard-core Bronx section — benefits from the use of patently good ingredients and a lighter touch than you'd find on Arthur Avenue.
The menu also includes a small selection of salumi and mozzarella, all thoughtfully selected and handsomely presented, and a handful of pastas, available in both appetizer and entree portions. The standout here is the rich, rich tagliolini with parmigiano cream sauce and speck ham.
There are other things to admire — a delicious entree of salmon and broccolini shows consideration for lighter appetites, a children's menu acknowledges that the real world exists, a fully thought-out dessert menu remembers that some diners have sweet tooths, and an impressively assembled cocktail menu thinks the opposite.
Off-notes are few. The main, and dramatic, entrance is not handicapped-accessible,and the accessible entrance is somewhat obscure. The service is valiant but not without its off moments.
The pizza is forged out of only the best ingredients with such enthusiasm and passion and then topped so creatively with such gorgeous meats and vegetables that passing judgment on it seems rude. Take the Contadina, a "hedonistic assembly of speck ham, Swiss chard, parmigiano cream, Taleggio," topped with two farmers eggs. Just out of the oven, it's looks worthy of displaying in the Uffizi.
How does it taste? I'll give the toppings a 10 and the crust itself an 8. I like mine a little crispier.