Until the new Una Pizza Napoletana came along, I didn’t think it was possible for a restaurant to fight itself to a draw.
In name at least, this is the fourth incarnation of the pizzeria that Anthony Mangieri founded in 1996 in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. He has never run more than one Una Pizza Napoletana at a time; each time he moves to a new location, he closes the old one. In the East Village (2004-9) and San Francisco (2010-17), he essentially stuck to the routine he had established in New Jersey.
At the two-month-old location on the Lower East Side, though, he is in business with two chefs, Jeremiah Stone and Fabián von Hauske Valtierra, whose sensibilities are wildly different from his own. Their two other restaurants, Wildair and Contra, are very contemporary and European in outlook. A meal at either one makes it obvious that Mr. Stone and Mr. von Hauske have carefully studied Copenhagen’s foremost exponents of fermentation and foraging. Nothing about Mr. Mangieri’s rigorously traditional pizza indicates that he could find Copenhagen on a map.
The three of them do have common traits. They take their cooking extremely seriously, favor simplicity and aren’t interested in easy ways out. So their collaboration — Mr. Mangieri is the pizza guy, of course, while his new partners handle appetizers, desserts and drinks — might not be doomed, but it isn’t exactly off to a promising start. The problem isn’t the common one of strengths in one area undermined by bad performance in others. Una Pizza Napoletana is almost all strengths, but they’re at war with one another.
Mr. Mangieri is a purist’s purist. His dough runs on wild yeast. For each batch, he mixes a lump of starter into Sicilian sea salt, finely ground Italian flour and water. With this he makes a crust that is delicious on its own, a minimum requirement for great pizza.
He makes pies in only one size, a wheel about 12 inches across. There are five on the menu most nights. None are topped with more than four ingredients, or six if you count oil and salt. On Friday and Saturday nights a sixth, more complicated pizza is offered.
Requests for substitutions or added toppings are not entertained on any night. There is no point asking Mr. Mangieri to put pepperoni on a margherita or Buffalo chicken and blue cheese on a marinara. You would have better luck persuading the driver of the M5 bus to pop a wheelie on Fifth Avenue.
The pies are at least as extraordinary as the ones he used to make in the East Village. They may be better. I don’t remember the imported buffalo mozzarella’s giving the pies the flavor of melted cultured butter back then, the way it does now. And did the tomato sauce — pulp, really — always have the same natural, sun-ripened sweetness? Especially on the marinara, unobscured by cheese and seasoned only with dried oregano, fresh basil and raw garlic, it’s almost hypnotic.
The Concetta pie, which has four varieties of tomato treated four separate ways, probably would have been beyond his abilities as a chef in the Jersey Shore days. He makes it only on Fridays, which is too bad, because it’s great.
The everyday pie called the Filetti, made with buffalo mozzarella and ripe red cherry tomatoes, manages to be surprising while sticking to Mr. Mangieri’s strict principles. It’s a personal creed that achieves transcendence — his “My Way,” to put it in New Jersey terms.
I ate one non-transcendent pie at the new Una Pizza Napoletana, a Bianco, which is topped with buffalo mozzarella, raw garlic and basil. It was excellent the next time I had it, and I immediately knew what had been missing: salt.
All the pies are $25. That is a lot for pizza. On the other hand, it is only about $2.50 more than what Mr. Mangieri charged when he first came to Manhattan in 2004, once you adjust for inflation. Then again, people said he charged a lot for pizza in 2004.
Mr. Mangieri and his wood-fueled oven are located at the back of the dining room, enclosed by glass on three sides. No doubt this helps keep the wood fire from wilting the customers like basil leaves, but it’s hard not to see it as a metaphor for the restaurant. Mr. Mangieri’s pizzas leave the glass box, but his sensibility doesn’t. Mr. Stone and Mr. von Hauske have put their own point of view on everything else, and it’s not the point of view of a pizzeria.
Everybody knows how to eat in a pizzeria; most of us have been doing it since we were kids. The choices are few and relatively predictable. Even when the pizzas are topped with weird stuff, you basically know what you’re getting. At the new Una Pizza Napoletana, only the pizzas are predictable.
What are bland chunks of white asparagus under a yellow powder of cured egg yolk and bottarga doing here? Not making new friends, I promise you.
There’s a fine, tender panna cotta with fresh fruit for dessert. One night the strawberry syrup spooned over it was essentially strawberry vinegar; on another night, its sweet-sour ratio was back in alignment.
The other desserts I tried — a bittersweet tiramisù with a welcome crackle of caramel hidden in its layers, and some pure-tasting, impossibly smooth, eggless ice creams, including a pistachio flavor that has to be tasted to be believed — won me over from the beginning.
None of the other appetizers were as charmless as the white asparagus. A freshly shucked sea scallop seasoned with translucent strips of lemon peel and individual dots of couscous was exceptional. And raw lobster surrounded by chickpeas was wonderfully jittery with an Italian citrus-chile paste. But the chefs serve it in a form — a chopped mass of unidentifiable goo — that can’t help but look off-putting. That dish would fit right in at Wildair; here, among the tomatoes and mozzarella, it seems to be trying too hard.
The same goes for the wine list. As they have done in their other places, Mr. Stone and Mr. von Hauske focus on natural wines. These wines can be mercurial, and the way the list is written only adds to the confusion. Almost no varietals are named, and you can’t tell much from the Italian regions, which include such major hubs as Irpinia and Solicchiata. When, helplessly, you accept a server’s offer of assistance, you’ll be asked what you intend to eat with your wine.
Are there any people other than sommeliers who want to talk at length about pairing particular wines with particular pizzas? I’ve never met them and if I do, I’m sending them off to be deprogrammed.
Discussing the list, tasting a few samples, trying to find something that fits your idea of a good pizza wine (yes, for some reason there are wines on the brief list that don’t taste especially good with any pizza) — all this slows down the pace, which isn’t especially brisk to begin with. By the end of the night, your meal can last twice as long and cost twice as much as it would at almost any other pizzeria in town.
Mr. Stone and Mr. von Hauske aren’t doing bad stuff at Una Pizza Napoletana, but often they’re doing the wrong stuff. They and Mr. Mangieri have taken one of the most accessible styles of restaurant dining and made it complicated and a little intimidating. Una Pizza Napoletana doesn’t need to be predictable. But it could be more intuitive.
Una Pizza Napoletana
175 Orchard Street (Stanton Street), Lower East Side; 646-692-3475; unapizza.com
Atmosphere A modestly design-conscious pizzeria where the wood-burning oven sits inside a glass box at the back of the room.
Service Kind, gentle and a bit too relaxed at times.
Sound Level Varies, but can throb when the bar is full.
Recommended All pizzas; tiramisù; ice cream.
Drinks and Wine Italian craft beers in cans and natural wines in glasses or bottles.
Prices Appetizers, $9 to $20; all pizzas, $25.OPEN Monday to Saturday for dinner.
Reservations Not accepted.
Wheelchair Access The dining room and accessible restroom are on the sidewalk level.
What the Stars Mean Ratings range from zero to four stars and reflect the reviewer’s reaction primarily to food, with ambience, service and price taken into consideration.
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