Brooklyn has a ton of pizza, and it just so happens to be the best that can be found basically anywhere. Think: Barboncino, Roberta’s, Saraghina, Motorino, Franny’s, Emily, Speedy Romeo’s, plus the newest wood-burning oven installment, Parkside, in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, which was opened by a Franny’s-alum, and is already teeming with people hungry for more thin-crust Neapolitan slices.
And in Greenpoint, Paulie Gee’s assumes the neighborhood mantle for most delicious wood-stove pizza. But here’s the thing about Paulie Gee’s (and every single other place just mentioned): You have to wait a ridiculously long time before you can sit down at a table and actually eat some pies. Plus, they all feel kind of the same. A minimal, rustic aesthetic with high-end carpentry, dark lighting, and cool-person vibes. Fine—we live here, that’s how things look now, and it can be pleasant. Except it’s become so ubiquitous that it can also feel like looking at the color beige.
But flying under the radar at the far end of Greenpoint, close to Queens, there is a wonderfully relaxed pizza alternative that isn’t trying to run with the New Brooklyn Pizza Crowd at all. And the pies at this classic Italian family joint—Ria Bella—are also quite tasty.
Ria Bella is run by Maria Abbate, along with her two sisters and mother, who cooks up lots of traditional Sicilian recipes passed down from Maria’s grandmother. And Maria, who grew up in her Italian family in Bensonhurst, has worked in bakeries and with food forever, so she’s added some of her own twists to family classics. The restaurant opened a little more than a year ago, but the Abbates are first-time restauranteurs and—one significant detraction for many Brooklyn diners—they don’t have a liquor license yet. “We’ve been waiting for over a year,” says Maria. In fact, they’re approved, but the dang thing still has to arrive. I was directed to the restaurant recently by a friend who works in the ‘hood, and who couldn’t believe how great the pies were when she stumbled upon them. For now, Ria Bella’s runs a robust delivery business. And once the beer and wine does arrive, I envision a lot more in-house feasting. For now, unlike those other places, there is no trouble getting a seat inside.
Speaking of that space: There are no filament bulbs, no concrete floors, no re-claimed wood counters, no lighting scheme so dim you need to use your iPhone to read the menu. It is not trying to be anything other than exactly what it is—a family-run Italian pizza joint—and it is a wonderful, comfortable relief. There are traditional wall sconces, brick walls, a big old Christmas tree, and art with American icons, the ones Europe used to idolize when Hollywood and Coca Cola seemed like the best thing on the planet.
“There are so many places that have, like, a new vibe, and I thought it would be nice to just bring in some authentic Italian atmosphere, and a family-style mom and pop joint where people can feel at home, and not blend in with the rest of the neighborhood,” Maria Abbate told me, while fielding delivery calls on a Tuesday night. When I visited last Saturday, that is precisely why I felt something so exquisite and rare; it was like I was a kid eating pizza in my hometown. It made the slices taste even better.
But the menu is not just pizza (even though I chose two pizza-only options, which are big and for sharing: the Pizza Di Parma, a thin round crust pie with mozzarella, tomato, basil, onion, proscuitto, and arugula, drizzled with balsamic reduction; and a traditional Sicilian pie, the Sfincione, with onions, anchovies, caciocavallo cheese and extra roasted breadcrumb topping). There are numerous other classic Italian selections like meatball and bruschetta appetizers, pastas, paninis, a whole case of Maria’s traditional Italian cookies and pastries (cannolis and fluffy little puffs of Nutella turnovers) and something called breakfast pizza. “We make breakfast pies that have an egg on top, and people will be like, ‘What do you mean eggs on pizza?’” Abbate says about her new customers. “But now, oh my god, we have so many regulars that come in for that.”
It was Abbate’s fiancé, co-owner Sean Squirella—whose family is from Naples—who encouraged Abbate to open her restaurant. “I’m glad I fed him well throughout the years, it’s paid off,” Abbate tells me. “It’s good to inspire men through their bellies,” which is some version of what my grandma used to tell me, even if I’ve never personally put this belief to the test. “Everyone is happy,” Maria says of her family restaurant. “It’s a nice neighborhood, and this is something different.”
Ria Bella Pizza, 1049 Manhattan Avenue, Greenpoint. Tuesday – Thursday, 12pm – 10pm; Friday – Saturday, 12pm – 11pm; Sunday 12pm – 9pm. Closed Monday. Free delivery.