For all the times I have walked down Arthur Avenue, I have never once noticed the indiscriminately small, paper sign in Giovanni's front window advertising "byrek." Still, can you blame me? The restaurant is a neighborhood mainstay, but it radiates fauxstalgia, a stone's throw from the Olive Garden and pale, cornmeal dusted pizzas. But sometimes there are diamonds in the rough. So I remembered when I took my first bite of their burek.
Outer borough eating enthusiasts (ourselves included) have long sung the praises of Tony & Tina's as an Arthur Avenue destination. But I'm here to announce that they've been supplanted.
Shy as the people at Giovanni's may be with their advertising, they treat their burek with respect, putting out a pastry that is simply cleaner and fresher than what is available down the street. That is, in part, because the burek here is cooked throughout the day, while at T&T's it is cooked in large volume early in the morning.
Prepared in the spiraled style, Giovanni's burek are available in spinach, cheese (not available during our visit), and beef. A single "slice" will set you back $5, a dollar higher than standard. But the extra Washington is justified by the attention to craft, particularly evident in the phyllo.
Giovanni's burek gets its biggest boost from the wood-fired brick oven it is cooked in. (Is this a first for New York?) What comes out of that oven is so seriously shatter-crisp, particularly in the case of the beef, that it makes T&T's phyllo almost dull in comparison. It produces a flakier, crackly, and more vibrantly colored crust.
The fillings, no less, are more carefully seasoned and lovingly cooked. Heavy on roasted garlic with a clear, substantially meaty flavor, Giovanni's beef burek was the first that I had that did not taste like Hamburger Helper. Neither does the cook rely on over-zealously applied poor quality black pepper. There is a friendlier application of the spice, one that lets the beef speak for itself and the roast garlic play second fiddle.
While I preferred the beef over the spinach, I enthusiastically recommend the former to those looking for a lighter option. (Or, perhaps, one of each?) The phyllo is softer and doughier, though not so much that it gets gummy. There was a meatiness to the greens, we agreed, as if they were cooked in chicken stock with the helping hand of a robust feta. There's nothing to fear, though, as that creamy but vegetal flavor we love in our spinach burek is still present.
The question remains as to how Giovanni's stacks up against Dukagjini, the reigning champion of Bronx burek that is deemed by some to be tops in the city. More visits to determine consistency are in order, but all signs point to them being a worthy competitor.
Giovanni's Brick Oven Pizza
2343 Arthur Avenue, The Bronx, NY 10458 (map)
About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats column. Follow him on Twitter, if you'd like. In person, your best bet is the window seat at Neerob, or waiting in line at the Lechonera La Piranha trailer.