The Early Word -- Company, or is it Co.?

King among bread bakers, Jim Lahey was a co-founder of Sullivan Street Bakery, but, apparently, he always longed to make pizza. You can get an excellent slice of pizza at the bakery, but it comes in big rectangular sheets (potato, mushroom, or the fabled pizza bianca), and is served at room temperature.

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What he wanted to make was Naples style pizza, but his new place--called Co. or Company, depending on where you see the name--was delayed again and again, as chronicled by Eater.com. Now the place is opening softly, mainly to family and friends, and I got a chance to taste the pies thanks to Lillian Chou, a friend and food editor at Gourmet who will soon be exiling herself to Beijing for who knows how long. She's been recipe-testing on Lahey's bread cookbook, expected any time now.

Currently, the place looks like a suburban garage inside, and the waiters are still rehearsing their pizza pitches. The pies are individual-sized, and priced from $7 to $21, which seems a little steep. The pie list includes 9 selections, and some of them are, shall we say, quirky in the extreme. Most expensive is the "special pie" ($21), which rolls on brussels sprouts, bechamel, cantal cheese, buffalo mozzarella, shaved chestnuts, and smoked bacon. How weird is that?

You won't be surprised to hear the crust is unimpeachable--cast in a malformed circle, it's light and bouncy, and charred around the edges. Really, if it had that slight sourdough taste of Naples pies, and was a little denser, it might qualify as one of the best evocations of the True Pie of Naples.

I tried three pies. The margherita was one of the best pizzas I've tried this year, light and bright, with the random sprawl of buffalo mozzarella adding richness and flash. I enjoyed the "ham and cheese" nearly as much, with three types of cheese (buffalo mozzarella, pecorino [what kind, I wondered.], and--odd man out--a French gruyere, making the pie a little like a croque monsieur, especially since thin slices of prosciutto were laid across the top like a tarp on a wet field.

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Try as I might, I couldn't get myself to like the santo ($17), which featured such incongruous elements as shaved radicchio, onions, bechamel, and three cheeses.

Then there are the appetizing cheese and meat plates, a handful of salads, and crostini featuring predictable things like chicken liver and eggplant. Somewhat controversially, bread and olive oil is served with a $5 charge. The menu will be further tinkered with, I'm sure, before the place opens on January 9th. 230 Ninth Avenue, 212-243-1105

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