Friday, February 6, 2009

Pizza Pilgrimage: Una Pizzeria Napoletana

We’ve heard about Anthony Mangieri’s near-fanatical dedication to the classic Naples-style approach to pizza. Una Pizzeria Napoletana was thus high on our must-try list. On our first night in town, we headed down to the east village only to find the joint closed. We finally got there for a “snack” on day 2 before meeting friends for dinner.

Bottom line up front:
The quality of Mangieri’s few ingredients shines, and his dough is lovely. However, the very oven that is such a focus of the restaurant seems to also be the source of two significant problems with the product. I’m VERY glad that the world has Mangieri uncompromisingly practicing his craft, but it’s hard to justify the price and trip in a town filled with so many worthy competitors.

Only five of the 35 seats were filled when we arrived. We were seated with a view of the small kitchen which is really just a one-man work counter in front of the massive oven. We happily ordered a Margherita to share.

They only offer four pies at Una Pizzeria Napoletana, and any alterations are strictly prohibited. They believe strongly that they know what works and what doesn’t – and in particular that a few superior quality ingredients make for a finer product than a voluminous hodgepodge. Their doctrine shines through in the product.

The pizza that appeared consisted of only of San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala, extra-virgin olive oil, fresh basil, & sea salt. We watched Mangieri build the pie to order in his sparse work space and bake it out with careful attention. It came from the oven to our table and we dug in excitedly. The flavors of the prime quality ingredients shone. The taste of the pie was stellar.

How good? Let's put it this way, for all the noise about his imported mozzarella di bufala and the painstakingly selected olive oil, we found ourselves debating where he got his basil. His freakin BASIL was that splendid! Did he grow it himself? Get it from a trusted source? We were enthralled.

However, even given the restrained portions of ingredients used in constructing the pie, a problem was quickly evident. There was so much excess liquid present that the lovely thin crust was quickly soaked through. While the edges held their chew and body for a while, the middle of the pie was a soggy mess.

But we savored the taste of that first pie and quickly decided to try one more.

The Bianca that soon arrived was just as carefully prepared and beautiful. It also matched both of the problems of the first pie. Both? Oh, yes. Aside from the sogginess, there were the bubbles.

You can see examples of these bubbles in the photo below. They didn’t taste of toasted or caramelized dough. They tasted of ash and carbon. And if they found their way into a bite, they sublimated every other flavor in the pie under their cinders.

I don’t have anything like Mangieri’s experience or expertise, but it seems to me that if each pizza coming out of that oven bears these burnt (not "well-done", they're b-u-r-n-t) parts, perhaps the oven is too hot. A cooler oven might also, it seems to me, allow you to leave the pizza in long enough to steam away more of the liquid inherent in the very fresh mozzarella.
But like I said, I don’t have the technical chops to recommend a better approach. However, a better approach is needed. Because what I got for $21 each were pizzas that were a sodden messes with burnt spots along the edges.

Una Pizzeria Napoletana
349 East 12th Street,
New York, New York 10003
212-477 9950

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