Una Pizza Napoletana is open. This is good news for San Francisco, bad news for New York City (you can have Nate Appleman, we’ll take Anthony). Yet, considering how many Neapolitan style places have popped up in the past few years you’d expect enthusiasm to be fairly low. We’ve got Flour + Water, Boot & Shoe, Zero Zero, Tony’s Pizza Neapolitana (please read my review) – not to mention the tried and true Pizette, Pizzaiolo, Delfina, Pico, Piccino, A16….Still, there was feverish anticipation of “the one” and I suspect there will continue to be a cult-like following for these pies.
Story goes… Anthony Mangieri had a coveted outpost in New York and decided to pull up the tent stakes and head west. He is lauded as a prodigy and obsesses over the details on a very simple line up of true Neapolitan pizza making (for details check out the wiki). His reputation is pretty pristine and I heard the term ‘artisan’ thrown around a few times last night.
Again, we hit wiki for clarification:
An artisan (from Italian: artigiano) is a skilled manual worker who makes items that may be functional or strictly decorative, including furniture, clothing, jewelry, household items, and tools. The term can also be used as an adjective to refer to the craft of hand making food products, such as bread, beverages and cheese.
That seems very appropriate for Anthony, as you will decipher from my experience.
The corner of 11th and Howard has an appropriate amount of funk for a destination restaurant. People who eat here won’t live here. There is a line. It will create controversy, but who cares. Stand in the line and wait till a table opens. Talk to your date (but don’t read every yelp review of the place out loud to her like the phlegmy guy behind me). Yes, they should just have a list so you can go get a drink. I don’t think Anthony is stubborn enough to force this forever. There was an attractive hostess greeting people, chatting about the pizza, the history, the process. Unfortunately, she’s just helping out temporarily (and she’s taken, boys). I suspect they’ll figure this out over time and get someone to manage the flow.
The design is very clean, very simple. Soaring high ceilings with beams as the sole contrast. Nothing to distract. A small collection of tables and a lot of open space. My guess is that the layout reflects the speed at which an artisanal product can be produced properly. He could have more tables in here, but he probably couldn’t keep up (or would he want to).
Anthony hovers over a simple station with a few bowls of his ingredients and a stack of trays of his pillowy dough (Note that when the dough runs out so does your luck). It’s a clean station for a single-minded task. This guy makes pizzas. 4 kinds. All fairly similar. No meat – no veggies – no soup for you! I kept wanting to liken this guy to the Soup Nazi – but when you speak with Anthony he is so damn nice and smiley that the comparison ends at his work station and limited offerings.
So for two people we ordered three pies, expecting to take home leftovers (we didn’t). We tried the Marinara, the Margherita and the Bianca. Now here’s where I go off a little… For the past 7 years I owned a high-end audio, video and home automation business. As a result, I often come in contact with types deemed as “audiophiles”. Truthfully, I hate the fucking term. It’s so elitist and pretentious and almost always self-prescribed and inaccurate. But what it boils down to is someone who has a sensitive enough ear to be able to hear the subtle differences between way-too expensive equipment, with the ultimate goal of perfecting sound reproduction. What always impresses me about true audiophiles is their ability to do this, free from a side-by-side comparison. It’s as if there is a reference standard imprinted on their brain, which they can recall at any time to compare.
As a food critic and chef, I would say I have a fairly refined palate, trained over many years of tasting the things I love over and over and over. There are a few items where I actually may approach the reference standard. Pizza is one of them. What I am getting at here is that like an audiophile, I can recall the landscape of pizza I’ve tasted throughout my life and generate an opinion of the requisite components (dough, sauce, cheese). I sat down this morning to do a side-by-side comparison in my head. And then I realized how pretentious and elitist it was (the phlegmy guy behind me was doing it out loud, in line). Sure I could compare this pizza to all the others but I’ve decided to give that up. Here’s my take on UPN on its own:
The dough is the star. Anthony uses a process of natural leavening (you can actually see a video of his entire process here) which produces the perfect balance of crisp on the outside, chewy in the middle. He’s also not afraid of salt. This is simply the way dough should be. Combine it with the smoke, ash, burns from his obsessively-maintained oven and you have something exceptional. The cheese and sauce are also very spot-on – not too sweet, just the right fat content.
All three pies were great, though I’d probably pass on the Marinara in favor of the Filetti. Generally I like a Marinara pizza on its own or along with a salad. But standing next to the other pizzas, it was a little lost. The cherry tomatoes on the Filettis we saw looked fantastic. The bianca started out as the surprise shining star. Fresh out of the oven there were hints of garlic, salt. The richness of the buffalo mozzarella popped in combination.
Moreover, I had an epiphany while eating the Margherita. It came after the pizza had a few minutes to settle. I often dive in while it is hot from the oven – cheese sliding around – roof of my mouth on fire. Yet, I confirmed last night that when a great pizza has time to settle a little (not too much for the cheese to harden and congeal), it actually gets better. The sauce intrudes slightly on the dough. The cheese distributes its fat and oils, the salt permeates everything. Try your pizza (just Margherita) after 8 minutes or so and you’ll see what I mean.
Una Pizza is a great place if you want to worship at the temple of pizza. Italians do this all of the time. Pizza is often consumed in the evening, by itself, over wine and conversation. The big meal is at lunch and takes hours with many courses. At UPN you get pizza, wine, beer – basta. And the pizza is near-perfect. I would wait in line any day to share with my good friends something that clearly contains so much artisanal skill, devotion to traditions, process and (yes the zealot is going to get cheesy) love.