Tuesday, August 17, 1999

Counter attack

Posted on Tue, Aug 17, 1999 at 4:00 AM

Psst – I'm about to let you in on a secret. What's the cheapest theater ticket in town? Answer: Gino's Pizza & Brew III on Orange Avenue, just north of Church Street. No matter what the hour, the guys behind the counter launch into a kinetic, gritty version of Hell's Kitchen performance art every time the front door opens and a fresh horde of hungry seekers pin themselves against the counter.

At night, the neon sign glows garishly over Orange Avenue, as the late-night crowd mixes with horn-rimmed yuppies. All this atmosphere for the cost of a slice of pizza ($2-$3.50)? Now, that's entertainment.

There's also an eagerness to please. If you don't see the entree you want on the menu, their "experienced N.Y.C. chefs" (who include at least one scrappy Scotsman) have been known to go out for the ingredients and whip up a customer's request.

The restaurant itself is the mirror image of a thousand pizzerias: A narrow entrance, with just enough room to order at the counter. Seating is minimal at the formica tables upstairs (forget finding a seat between noon and 2 p.m. weekdays), where a smudged window overlooking the street further sets the mood. No wonder requests for slices to go are as common as the red-and-white-checkered vinyl tablecloths.

At any given time, nearly a dozen choices are on display. The veggie slice looks approachable in comparison to the staggering stuffed meat-lover's pizza, which spills over with pepperoni, bacon, salami and meatballs. The slices we sampled were faultless even though they were reheated, as is the standard. The bianco version, in particular, was a luscious blend of Romano, ricotta and Parmesan cheeses ($2.50).

There are also strombolis, calzones, wings, salads and pasta dishes. But something went wrong with the ziti ($5.50) we tried: The pesto sauce had plenty of gusto, but the pasta was limp and overcooked. Lasagna, on the other hand, was unforgettable and dangerously messy – just as we'd hoped – with rich layers of ricotta and fresh marinara. Don't miss the garlic rolls, twisted into knots and broiled with butter.

On this Friday night, the mood upstairs got boozy as some of the customers waited (and waited) for dinner – beer flowed, brows were mopped as the A/C blew hot, cold and hot again. Finally an argument erupted between one couple, and a woman slammed her fist on the table. Taking no chances, we gathered our leftovers and made a swift exit.

On our way out, the guys behind the counter called out "goodbye," even as they were hefting vats of pizza dough big enough to feed a battalion.



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