Friday, January 19, 2007
Una Pizza Perfetta
My pizza adventures have been on something of an upswing lately.
First I (mostly) swore off crappy pizza and discovered the excellent pizzeria No. 28 in one fell swoop. And then there's Margy's amazing homemade pizza, which I can pretty much demand at any time of year save the sultry summer months.
But I must say that 2007 really started out with a bang when Enzo, who seems to be my pizza-hunting guardian angel -- or at least my official taster -- finally brought me to Una Pizza Napoletana in the East Village.
I had read about the place for months, years, eons, whatever -- long enough to know that I needed to try it. (It opened in 2004.) The band had an evening gig in Brooklyn, and, earlier in the week, when I mentioned getting together with some or all of the fellas for dinner, Enzo looked at me and said, "UPN, dude." Done.
I did a little more reading in the days leading up to tonight. The user reviews on Citysearch cracked me up. They basically alternate "Best pizza ever" and "What's the big deal?" But, knowing all about Una Pizza's borderline psychotic insistence on using only the best, most classic ingredients and techniques, I had a strong feeling about which side of the fence I'd land on. Still, I couldn't help but notice that every reviewer, regardless of whether his or her comments were positive or negative, moaned and groaned about the price of the pizza. Among other complaints were descriptions of the proprietor, Anthony Mangieri, as the "pizza Nazi," and stuff like, "They make you cut your own pie!" and, "They don't give you free water!"
I'm reading this and thinking, Just show me the pizza.
So Enzo and his wife and I -- my biggest regret would soon be letting Margy skip out on this one -- showed up around 7:30 on this Friday night, and there were a few people on line ahead of us. One thing I was not going to do was get bummed out about waiting, not even while standing outside in winter drizzle. This was a quest, after all -- my ongoing quest to eat decent pizza -- and quests take time. Within a few minutes we were waiting inside, and I could finally see some pies.
Wow, were they small. Yet another feature of the UPN product that Citysearchers couldn't seem to pipe down about. But gosh, were they gorgeous. I caught myself ogling and averted my eyes to that inward place that's always dreaming about pizza. Now and then I'd look over at Mangieri tending the wood-fired brick oven and see him pour olive oil from a copper kettle onto a pie in an artful, well-practiced swirl. The guy had me at hello.
Now, the menu at Una Pizza Napoletana lists four items, all pizzas, all featuring a combination of very basic ingredients (drawn from this list: San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil, oregano, fresh garlic, fresh cherry tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, Sicilian sea salt). Want an anchovy? Go someplace else. Feel like some pepperoni? Seek it elsewhere. Heaven forbid you're in the mood for a salad. Waiting on line, I whispered to Enzo, "I wonder if you can get a little hot pepper if you feel like it."
"Probably not," we said in unison.
After a wait of maybe fifteen minutes in the very small, sparsely adorned dining room, a table was ready, and the Italian waitress led us over. Enzo and I immediately began speaking to her in Italian, just to test the waters. She seemed to appreciate that. We ordered three Peroni and three Margheritas (San Marzanos, mozzarella, olive oil, basil, salt). And then, I have to say, I felt a little depressed.
The money thing was getting to me.
Of all the things in this world that we can spend our hard-earned cash on, food is right at the top of the list for me. It just makes sense to seek out certain edible items that might occupy a higher price bracket. This isn't always necessary -- it can even be foolish sometimes -- but very often the best foods, or the best available varieties of certain foods, cost the most. I had already had this conversation with myself before entering the cash-only, four-items-on-the-menu Una Pizza Napoletana, and I had concluded that if the pie is indeed that memorable then it would be worth it to pay whatever it cost.
What a 12-inch pizza costs at UPN is $21. And I really felt the impact once I'd requested one.
But then the pie arrived, and thoughts of dollars and cents receded far enough away that I'd have given Mangieri whatever he wanted from me. After just a quick bite or two, 21 bucks seemed utterly reasonable -- a steal, even. I began to stammer an endless stream of "Wow" and "Unbelievable." Other topics could not enter the conversation, if conversation is the right word for oohs and aahs and incomplete sentences. When we talked, we talked about the pizza.
Two features jumped out at me: harmoniousness and deliciousness.
First, the harmony. Every carefully chosen component of the pie came together in the ultimate "the whole is more than the sum of its parts" way. It helped, of course, that each part had an impressive pedigree, but it was the balance that was so stunning. At another place, I might've wanted a spoonful more sauce. Here, I did not. In a different pizzeria, I might have wanted just a bit more crunch from the crust. Here, that notion would have been a travesty. This crust perfectly toed the line between crisp and chewy, and it was branded beautifully with little char marks from the oven. My friends, UPN veterans, said they'd never had such a well-done pie there, that usually it was cooked a bit less. I found that hard to imagine -- again, what I was eating seemed perfect, and I didn't want to acknowledge that anything less so was possible -- but in my state of rapture I figured that even a less well-done pizza would still be great.
On to the deliciousness. This pie simply tasted better than all but maybe one or two that I've had in my life. I usually judge a pizza by breaking it down -- how's the crust? is the sauce too sweet? does the cheese have any flavor? -- but this one defied my conventions by forcing me to view it as a whole. Harmony again.
Of course, I can try to analyze it. The tomatoes were lovely, a little bit of tang that worked in conjunction with the yeastiness of the dough. The buffalo mozzarella was more assertive than most mozz. Placed on the pie almost in little balls, it melted slightly outward but retained a milky whiteness, and its lush creaminess balanced the acidic tomato. Adding the olive oil, which pooled up just a bit in the center of the pizza (like it does on good pies in Italy), was an important touch -- you could really taste it. And the basil offered color contrast and refreshing herbal flavor.
But the thing that really blew all of us away was the sea salt. If this were a movie review, here's where I might say "beware of spoiler," because I'd want everyone to discover for themselves the little surprises that pop up here and there as you gobble the pie. I didn't know where, I didn't know when -- the large, angular salt crystals were cloaked by the other ingredients -- but now and again I'd get this little crunch followed by saltiness, and it grabbed me every time. The whole experience was thrilling, and it was over too soon.
Before it ended, though, Enzo motioned toward our waitress as she zipped by. "C'è un po' di peperoncino?" he asked. "Is there a bit of hot pepper?" Oh no, I thought, he's gonna ruin everything. But nothing could be ruined -- we had our pizzas, and no one could take them away from us. And it's not as if we were going to order dessert, although in retrospect a white pizza would've been a fine substitute for gelato or biscotti.
Anyway, I could swear that a bit of a smile took a downward turn as our server accelerated past us, answering, "Non c'è la. NON C'È LA!"
"It's not here. IT'S NOT HERE!" You know what? They don't need it.