May 27, 2005
Una Pizza Napoletana
Absolutely fantastic pizza.
Not worth the price they want for it.
That's the short review. And that's really all you need to know about Una Pizza Napoletana.
By now most people have heard of Una Pizza Napoletana, the hardcore purveyors of authentic Neapolitan-style pizza (which, according to them, is the only true pizza). Their menu consists of 4 simple pies, all 12"; each priced at a rather astronomical (for plain individual-sized pizza) $16.95. That's it. Nothing else. No starters, desserts, nothing. They even have a nicely printed
manifestobrochure full of dense text explaining their methodology which somehow ends up reading a little defensive I thought.
They tell you they use all the best ingredients imported from Italy. From the flour, to the mozzarella (bufala imported from Napoli every week), to the extra-virgin olive oil (imported from Southern Italy), to the sea salt (imported from Sicily) to the tomatoes from San Marzano.
Even their hours of operation is high-maintenance. They are only open Thursday to Sunday from 5pm until their dough runs out.
Anyway, I usually applaud this type of single-minded focus on making the best food so I eagerly went there the first week it was open. Back then, despite the buzz around the place, the restaurant was not full. We got a table right away.
Like I mentioned, their menu consists of four pies, all basically variations on the same theme, which is: baked flat bread with some combinations of salt, oil, tomatoes, cheese and basil on top. There's the basic Marinara, which comes with tomatoes, olive oil, oregano, garlic, basil and sea salt. The Margherita adds mozzarella and subtracts the oregano and garlic. The Bianca has no tomatoes or oregano or basil. And finally, the Filetti substitutes the San Marzano tomatoes with fresh cherry tomatoes and no oregano. We were merely curious of the place so we ordered a Filetti to split between the two of us.
Anyway, the pizza was impressive. The pie arrived blistering and bubbling from the wood burning oven (they make a big deal about the wood versus coal ovens in their "manisfesto" as well). As is the norm with "artisanal" pizzas, the pie arrived uncut. We quickly got our knives and fork and got to work. The crust had a chewiness that I have not tasted in any other thin crust pies in the city. You can really taste the elasticity of the superior dough, whereas most thin crust pies are usually just thin and brittle, almost like a cracker. Though there are not many ingredients, you can literally taste the superior qualities of each and every single topping. The cherry tomatoes burst in my mouth in small explosions of freshness. And the appealingly random distribution of sea salt gave each bite a different complexion. Yes it was a simple pie, but each bite gave me something to think about. The dough. The salt. The cheese. Everything was perfect. Despite thinking it was mad expensive for what it is, I vowed to come back again.
Fast forward nearly six months later and we finally found time to give it another try. This time we had the Margherita (pictured above) and the Bianca (pictured below). The pies were as impressive as we remembered. Except this time I vowed to not come back again. What changed?
One, ordering two pies at once greatly diminished the enjoyment as the pies cooled down quicker than you can finish them (and I eat fast). And once cooled, they lose that doughy and chewy crust. After that, it's all downhill: the pie quickly gets wet and mushy. It becomes quite ordinary at that point. So if you go, I recommend ordering the pies one at a time to share. Only get another one after you're done with the first (assuming they let you do that).
Two, six months later, the pizzeria is now hoppping. There's a line out of the door and the people who worked at the restaurant that night were quite surly. Not a smile or welcome or anything. When a table of 6 got up and left, leaving behind a 4-seater and a 2-seater, we were next in line so we took the larger table thinking the next people in line were also two people and since we were there first, we might as well take the bigger table. Well, it turned out that the next people were waiting for a table for four and when the waiter was informed of this, he merely shrugged and said with no emotion: "Take the table for two if you want..." and left. He didn't even try to ask us to move to the smaller table. What a strange way to conduct business! I guess they have enough business no matter how they run the place so they don't really care. Anyway, we volunteered to move and that was that.
Three, and I don't remember this from my first visit, but they don't serve tap water here! What the hell? I don't think I've been to a restaurant that refuses to serve tap water. Even the snootiest of places lets you drink tap water if you choose. We had to fork over $2 per small bottle of spring water. And true to their Italian-everything mantra, the water is from Italy.
Lastly, the real reason I won't return is that it finally hit me how damn expensive this place is. So 3 small bottles of drinks at $2 each plus 2 pies at $16.95 each and add in tax and tips and we were left with a $50 bill. For some baked bread essentially. Very good bread—amazing even—but I don't want to pay $50 for it. Not in some pizzeria with no ambiance or service or much selection on the menu. Sure, you can say you're paying for this pizza artiste's vision. You can say that, but I'm still not going to pay for it.
Think about it, what kind of premium are you paying for using all those imported ingredients? You can't tell me that by substituting (quality) local versions of everything, you can't make an equally tasty pie as long as you use the same techniques. I for one am not willing to pay 40% extra to gain that extra 1% percent in authenticity. You might, I won't. The law of diminishing returns definitely apply here.
I'm not even convinced this is the best pizza in the city. It's definitely in the conversation, but it's not a slam-dunk-no-questions-about-it situation. Even if it were, it's not by much. You might make an argument that it is the best pure, plain pie in the city. It's still not $25/person good though, I'll tell you that. Certainly that other much talked-about artisanal pizza maker in Brooklyn, Franny's, is in the running. And there, you can have a complete meal. And more choices for toppings. Una Pizza may scoff at other toppings as being not authentic, but damn it, sometimes they taste amazing (the clam pie at Franny's... delicious!), and that's all I care about. Taste is ultimately what matters to me, not the semantics of what's really a pizza and what isn't. It's all bread with stuff on top to me.
Una Pizza Napoletana, 349 East 12 Street (near First Avenue), (212) 477-9950.
Food & Drink