Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Real Italian Pizza, pt. 3

video food blogging in action fig. a: videoblogging in action

Isabella's Oven

We paused outside of Isabella's to squeeze in a little video food-blogging, but after our disappointing experience at Adrienne's we were eager to get our mojo back, so we marched in the door to find Isabella's empty, its entire staff taking a break. It was mid-afternoon at that point, so although it did make for a stark juxtaposition with Adrienne's, that fact alone wasn't exactly cause for panic. What was cause for panic, however, was that Ed and Adam instantly noticed that "their pieman"--Luigi, the fantastically talented, Naples-trained pizzaiolo who'd made each of the exceptional pies they'd enjoyed at Isabella's since Ed first got tipped off to Isabella's last summer--wasn't in the house. Ed and Adam had heard from other pizza enthusiasts that they'd had less than exemplary pizza experiences at Isabella's, that, in fact, the pizza at Isabella's wasn't "all that," but every time the Serious Eats boys had visited Luigi had been there to greet them with an expert Neapolitan pie. This time, however, they found real cause for concern. Maybe there was some kind of Jekyll and Hyde thing going on at Isabella's, depending on whether Luigi was around. Ed tried to get the skinny on Luigi's whereabouts and was informed that he'd had to return to Italy on personal business and that he'd be back there for an indefinite amount of time. In his absence the daytime pieman had become Isabella's principal pieman. It was clear that this was bad news.

We ordered a Margherita D.O.C. pizza (with D.O.C. bufala mozzarella) and tried to keep things upbeat, but Ed and Adam were clearly worried that they might have to relegate Isabella's to a lower division. And that's exactly what happened. The 16" pie that arrived was perfectly fine, respectable even, but far from transcendent, far from being the pie that had Ed had deemed potential national-top-ten material back in July. I mean, you can tell by just looking at it. See that crust?

isabelle's pie fig. b: Margherita D.O.C. from Isabella's Oven

Now compare that with the crusts we got at Di Fara and Franny's. And compare it with the crusts you're going to see below.

Remember that "myth of the pizzaiolo" jazz I went on about in "Real Italian Pizza, pt. 2"? Well, here was an abject lesson in how a single, solitary pizzaiolo can make all the difference in the high-stakes pizza game that is New York City pizza.

So after starting off with a bang, we were on a bit of a losing streak. First, an undercooked grandma pie at Nick Angelis's Adrienne's Pizzabar, and now this? We needed a little help, and that's exactly what we got.

Verdict: pinch-hit single.

una pizza napoletana fig. c: Una Pizza Napoletana

Una Pizza Napoletana

Minutes later, we'd relocated from the Lower East Side to the East Village, and we were standing in front of a place we'd heard a lot about over the course of the day and a place that Ed devotes a considerable amount of ink to in the pages of Pizza: A Slice of Heaven: Una Pizza Napoletana. Just three years old, the aura that surrounds Una Pizza Napoletana is already enormous.

The story goes something like this: a few years ago, Ed was contacted by a friend of his in New Jersey who proceeded to tell him she'd just recently eaten the single best thing she'd ever eaten in New Jersey (which, considering she was the long-time food critic at the Asbury Park Press, was saying something)--and that thing wasn't some high-falutin' dish from some high-falutin' restaurant, it was pizza from a little strip mall pizzeria in Point Pleasant, on the North Jersey Shore. Ed hustled his way down to Point Pleasant and there he encountered the talent of Anthony Mangieri for the first time. Mangieri had started off as a bread baker and he'd taken that very seriously too--opening his first bakery before he was 21. A few years later he switched over to pizza exclusively. He'd grown up in a family with strong ties to Naples, so he'd visited often, eaten a lot of pizza, taken a lot of mental notes. Pizza became Mangieri's thing, his raison d'être. Ed could see he had that gleam in his eye--the one that distinguishes the merely professional from the certifiably obsessed. Better yet, he could taste it in Mangieri's pies.

Not long after Ed's momentous visit, Mangieri moved the operation to the East Village, barely changing a thing. He's only open four days a week, and on those days he's only open until the dough lasts. He still offers only four pizze--Marinara, Margherita, Bianca, Filetti--and these are essentially the only items on the menu. No salads, no appetizers, and no desserts, with the exception of the Italian chocolates that come with the bill. He uses only the purest of ingredients, including mozzarella di bufala (the only cheese Mangieri uses), Sicilian salt, Italian extra-virgin olive oil, and D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes, and his dough is a homemade sourdough that takes a minimum of 36 hours to produce. Mangieri started off with a locally made wood-fired brick oven, but this summer he upgraded to a handsome white Neapolitan model, and, it's safe to say, he knows how to use it. Neither Michelle or I had ever seen anyone tend an oven like Mangieri does. It was mesmerizing.

We showed up at Una Pizza Napoletana just before opening time that Saturday. We were a little early and we were just about to take a walk around the block to kill some time and check out the latest restaurant in the Momofuku family when we ran into Mangieri outside. Perfect timing. We got a chance to talk to him about pizza, about Italian food more generally, about Montreal (and about the shortcomings of Montreal pizza), and we got a chance to see that gleam too. A few minutes later he invited us in to grab a seat. The oven was ready, therefore he was ready.

While Mangieri was preparing our pizzas, Ed asked him a hypothetical question. Let's say you go into a reputable pizza place, you order your pizza, and then they bring it out to you. It looks great from the outside--nicely colored, apparently well cooked--but then you bite in and it's all gummy and undercooked. What gives? Is that a dough problem? Is it an oven problem? Mangieri walked us through the possible scenarios, but the probable cause was an overly hot oven. Then he explained the trials and tribulations of a wood-burning pizza oven: its intense heat, its temperamentality, and the fact that your optimum cooking time might only last an hour or so, which means that the rest of the evening you might be dealing with an oven that's just too damn hot, quickly scorching the dough on the outside, while leaving the interior insufficiently cooked. This means that every night the pizzaiolo working a wood-burning oven struggles to make the adjustments necessary to guarantee the best possible pizza given the conditions of the moment, that the best pizzaiolo is the one who's most capable when it comes to making these countless adjustments. This gave a further wrinkle to the "myth of the pizzaiolo."

The first of our pizzas to arrive from Mangieri's oven was our Marinara--"San Marzano tomatoes, extra-virgin olive oil, oregano, fresh garlic, fresh basil, sea salt," according to Una Pizza Napoletana's menu--a pizza that Ed described as being "a minimalist masterpiece" after his first encounter. I wanted to know how Mangieri worked a cheeseless pie, so I'd lobbied for a Marinara, and I was glad I had. I mean, just look at that thing.

una pizza napoletana's marinara fig. d: Una Pizza Napoletana's marinara

Simple perfection incarnate. Mangieri's sourdough crust was enough to make you cry. So much flavor, so masterfully handled.

It's hard to believe, I know, but the next pie, the Filetti, was even better. Topped with cherry tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, fresh garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, fresh basil, and that Sicilian sea salt, this pizza was deluxe. We'd been having buffalo mozzarella all day--at Di Fara, at Franny's, at Isabella's, and now at Una Pizza Napoletana--but this was by far and away the tastiest, most satisfying buffalo mozzarella we'd encountered. And its marriage with the garlic, the cherry tomatoes, the salt, the basil, and that sourdough crust was astounding. Looked great too:

una pizza napoletana's filetti fig. e: Una Pizza Napoletana's filetti

On some level, eating at Una Pizza Napoletana is an austere experience. As mentioned above, there are no salads or other kinds of appetizers. There are only four pizzas on the menu to choose from and subsitutions or any other special requests are not allowed. There are no desserts, aside from those chocolates mentioned above, although they do offer Neapolitan-style espressos--very good ones, in fact. The restaurant is small and simply appointed. The menu reads part history lesson, part manifesto, part throwdown. The overall aesthetic is nothing if not spartan. That said, Mangieri is capable of taking the most basic and ingredients and transforming them into a pizza so extraordinary that one bite makes you feel like you're sitting on top of the world. His pizzas don't come cheap--"We have no quarrel with the man who sells cheaper pizza", the menu exclaims, "he knows how much his is worth!"--but, at the same time, pizza's inherently democratic appeal is still very much intact. "Nothing... purer or [more] honestly wholesome can be bought at any price," Mangieri's menu reads, and he means it.

Pizza fanatics talk about the five-minute rule or the third-slice rule: the first slice or two, fresh out of the oven, can be a little misleading. The third slice, when the pizza has had some time to cool down a bit, is the true test of a pizza. The problem with Mangieri's pizzas was that they were so good, they didn't last that long, The four of us had been at it for 6-7 hours already, but we tore into those pies as though they were our first.

Verdict: grand slam.

How do you continue after you've been to the mountain? Not wanting to risk another difficult comedown, we decided to call it a Pizza Tour after Una Pizza Napoletana. That would mean leaving Joe's and Bleecker Street Pizza for another occasion. But there was something almost operatic about it. A 5-act, seven-and-a-half-hour opera, with some true highs and lows, some tears, some triumphs, a couple of Italian heroes, and a few important lessons. We thanked our hosts profusely

pizza tour guides fig. f: the Serious Eats boys

and headed back to Brooklyn to try to make sense of it all. Days later, back in Montreal, we were still reeling.

Didn't catch Parts One and Two?  Well, here they are.


Di Fara, 1424 Avenue J, Brooklyn, NY, (718) 258-1367

Franny's, 295 Flatbush Ave., Brooklyn, NY, (718) 230-0221, www.frannysbrooklyn.com

Adrienne's Pizzabar, 54 Stone St., New York, NY, (212) 248-3838, www.adriennespizzabar.com

Isabella's Oven, 365 Grand St., New York, NY, (212) 529-5206, www.isabellasoven.com

Una Pizza Napoletana, 349 E. 12th St., New York, NY, (212) 477-9950, www.unapizza.com

Don't ask us to provide you with directions so that you can replicate this pizza tour exactly. Adam made sure to throw in plenty of dekes and diversions so that this pizza tour would remain absolutely one-of-a-kind. You will find plenty of handy-dandy interactive pizza maps at slice, though. You'll also find Adam's own personal play-by-play account of NY Pizza Tour 2007.


Ed Levine, Pizza: A Slice of Heaven

John Thorne, "Existential Pizza," Pot on the Fire: Further Exploits of a Renegade Cook

Alan Davidson, The Penguin Companion to Food

Ed Behr, "Pizza in Naples," The Art of Eating (spring 1992)


ps--apologies to any and all members of our New York posse (you know who you are) that we weren't able to see during our whirlwind visit.


The Hungry Italian said...

Your "real Italian Pizza" series has been a real pleasure to read. Not only is the information spot on, but it's written in a beautifully descriptive manner. Being a food writer/historian myself, I have no qualms about using your site for research and general information. Keep it up.

Aimée said...

We're planning a NY trip next month. Thanks for simplifying where (and what)to eat while we are there.

aj kinik said...

Hi Alessandro,
Thanks for the high praise.

Hi Aimée,
You're welcome. Research has rarely been so pleasurable.

Anonymous said...

che meraviglia!
neanche qui nella mia città ci sono pizze così belle!