The crowd fills the entry of Otto’s new Brookline location and the bar is jammed. There’s no printed beer and wine list so the poor bartenders are left to shout over the din. “Girlie beer!” I holler to the barmaid, who pours a taste of Southern Tier Hop Sun, and looks genuinely pleased when I tell her she’s nailed it. Four days later, the spot across from the Coolidge Corner Theatre is not as crowded but there’s still a 45-minute wait, and a printed list this time. “Girlie beer,” I tell the same bartender, who doesn’t skip a beat, and pours Southern Tier.
Who trained these folks? Because whoever did, well, I’d like to give you a list of restaurants that need you. This place is upbeat, the food sings, and the whole experience, which could be dreadful because of the wait, is delightful. Once you’re seated, pizzas come quickly, stacked on a metal holder. Crusts are thin and beautifully baked — well done on the bottom every single time. Pies garnished with roasted tomatoes lean to sweetness. Most are flavorful with herbs, but some lack salt. Overall, Otto deserves its celebrated reputation.
Owners Anthony Allen and Mike Keon, who began in Maine in 2009, now have three places in Portland. The month-old Brookline spot seats 60 and has a takeout counter; Harvard Square, opened 16 months ago, is all takeout (pizza only) with a little standing room and a few outdoor seats.
The Brookline spot housed a McDonald’s for many years, then a series of businesses. Look closely and you’ll see a Ronald McDonald sitting on an architectural flourish near the ceiling. There are several of these corbels, which might seem odd with white subway tiling and curved windows left from McDo’s. In fact they make the place interesting. Above the bar is a blow-up photo of Gustav V, former King of Sweden, with a cigarette hanging from his mouth, opening a bottle of Veuve Cliquot.
Because few pizza houses take salads seriously, I am surprised that a Caesar has especially fresh romaine, a few crisp croutes, and isn’t drowned in dressing. The best is “crunchy green” ($8), with Napa cabbage, green apple, and Green Goddess dressing. A mozzarella and cherry tomato salad ($7) is dull with mesclun.
Pizza toppings are added sparingly, so the crust isn’t compromised. Four cheese ($12 and $21) combines Asiago, mozzarella, fontina, and dollops of herbed ricotta, a pleasing array, though it needs salt. Sausage and Vidalia ($19 and $11) is one of the red pies that come with spoonfuls of quite wonderful and intense roasted tomatoes. With lively sausage and sweet onions, this is a fine round. Margherita ($18 and $11) with sliced tomatoes is lackluster, but roasted tomato, ricotta, and basil ($21 and $12) is divine, the rich red fruit perfect with warm ricotta. White bean and roasted tomato ($21 and $12) has a just-right smattering of legumes.
Otto’s logo looks like a crown bottle cap with eight curved edges that bears the restaurant name (it means eight in Italian, as in eight slices to a pie). Celebrity chef Mario Batali, whose New York pizza restaurant Otto has a similar logo, found out about the Portland spots earlier this year and hurled a tweet with slurs at them. “We have all the respect for him as possible,” says Allen, who issued a response to that effect.
Thirty days into its lease, Brookline Otto is getting great pies to the table in minutes, to a steady flow of foot traffic and theatergoers. Quarrels between New York and New England are nothing new. With pizza this good, what’s in a name?