Monday, October 19, 2009

My NY Pizza Adventure, Part 1 - Pieman's Craft Event

349 East 12 Street
New York, NY 10003
(212) 777-2644


Anthony Mangieri, in certain circles, is considered pizza royalty. The authentic Neapolitan pies he slung at his NY-based Una Pizza Napoletana were considered among the very best in the city. Then the news came: Mangieri was closing shop.

I was devastated. After reading rave reviews of the place in Ed Levine's A Slice of Heaven and on Jeff Varasano's website, I had placed Una Pizza Napoletana at the top of my list of pizzerias to try whenever I made it out to New York. Now, it was never going to happen.

Shortly thereafter, a post on the venerable Slice blog caught my eye: Mangieri was coming back to make a few more pies for the Food & Wine Magazine's annual Pieman's Craft event, a two-day pizza extravaganza hosted by Ed Levine and Slice founder Adam Kuban. Tickets were going fast, so fast that the event's first day was already completely sold out. But, but...there were still a few tickets left for the second day. Charged by adrenaline, fueled by impulse, I typed in my credit card number and scored two tickets. I gave no consideration as to how I would actually get to New York, just that I would find some way of doing it.

It wasn't easy. I procrastinated on the plane tickets and ended up paying far more than I would have liked. Hotel options for the weekend of the event were extremely limited, and even at the budget traveler's level, pricey. I paid dearly, but now all the logistics were taken care of. I would be flying to New York City, the greatest city for pizza in the United States. Needless to say, I was giddy as a schoolgirl. A schoolgirl with a borderline pizza obsession.

After months of waiting, the day arrived, and through the window of the plane I watched the entire country roll by beneath me. I was deposited at LaGuardia Airport in Queens, caught a shuttle that wound for two hours through the traffic-choked streets of Manhattan, and eventually arrived at the first of the two hotels I had booked for the trip (only two nights could be secured at one hotel, so I had to book my first night here). After a filling dinner at Shake Shack outside Madison Square Garden, I had a good night's rest, then set out the following afternoon for the East Village branch of Motorino, the site of the Pieman's Craft event and the replacement for Mangieri's Una Pizza Napoletana.

I was the first to arrive, and soon enough met Adam Kuban, who knew me immediately by my Slice moniker, WikiAdam. I took a seat near the front windows, which was a smart decision, as the fresh breeze helped alleviate some of the heat trapped inside this tiny restaurant. Before long I was surrounded by fellow pizza fanatics, including Brooks Jones of Me, Myself, and Pie and Nick Sherman of Pizza Rules! I had the time of my life chatting with Brooks about NY pizza, Jeff Varasano's pizza recipe, and places he recommended I try around the area.

Then the big dogs arrived: Ed Levine, our charming host; Anthony Mangieri, looking exactly as he did in all the videos I'd seen filmed at Una Pizza before it closed; and Mathieu Palombino, owner of Motorino. I had read a lot of very positive press about Motorino's Neapolitan pies in the weeks leading up to this trip, and I couldn't believe how young Palombino looked. Could someone so youthful make truly sublime pizza? I was about to find out.

But first, for the purpose of comparison, we were served two NY-style slices. And believe me when I say to you that the difference was like night and day.

The first slice came courtesy of one of the Manhattan branches of Totonno's, the famous coal-fired pizzeria whose main base of operations is still undergoing repairs at Coney Island. The original Coney Island Totonno's is legendary, and many consider it to be one of the very finest pizzerias in the country, but its Manhattan branches do not carry the same clout in the estimations of most pizza aficionados. After trying this slice, it was easy to see why.

Most noticeably, the slice had a stale quality to it, as if it had been left to sit out overnight. The crust had decent char to it, but it lacked crispness and was chewier than I expected. Also, and I assume this is because of the coal-fired oven, there was the distinct flavor of cocoa in every bite; the smoke released by the burning coal had to be the culprit. As for the rest of the slice, the sauce seemed slightly thick, but I kind of liked the flavor of the mozzarella -- it tasted more than a little bit like macaroni and cheese. All in all, it was a pretty underwhelming slice, and I didn't finish it.

Next up came a substantially larger slice from Pizza Suprema, whose location was apparently close enough to the Slice offices to warrant inclusion in the taste-testing. As disappointed as I was with the Totonno's slice, I liked this one even less.

Again, being delivered halfway across the city had taken its toll on the slice, and it had lost much of its crispness in the process. The sauce was surprisingly sweet, and the cheese had perspired so much grease into it that I had a difficult time swallowing it. As with the Totonno's slice, I'm positive Suprema's pizza is much better when eaten at the source of its inception.

Once the waitstaff carried away our paper plates and mostly uneaten slices, they returned with a sign that foretold of better things to come: the red wine. Our glasses filed, a palpable sense of excitement rippled through the crowd like a stone dropped onto the surface of a lake. It meant only one thing: we would be eating the real pizza now. And after a pretty lackluster antipasti plate, it came.

The first full pie to hit our table was the Soppressata Piccante. It was immediately obvious that the crust took center stage here, with a very puffy cornicione, leopard-spotting galore, and perfect char blisters on the upskirt. This crust was crispy on the outside and marvelously chewy on the inside, light and airy and well-crafted. Topping this magnificent display of wood-fired dough was a San Marzano tomato sauce, fresh fior di latte, spicy soppressata (the gourmet's pepperoni), sliced garlic, chili oil, and thin slices of red chilies that most likely accompanied the bottle of said chili oil. Not knowing what to expect, I mistakenly bit into two of these innocent-looking little red circles and felt like I'd been stung in the mouth by a wasp. Those chilis bit down on my tongue harder than my own teeth had bit into the slice, and with my eyes filling up I chugged some ice water and gave my dining companions a thumbs-up sign to let them know I was still conscious. Note to all those planning on ordering this pizza from Motorino in the future: take it easy with those chilis. They are very flavorful, but they're packing more heat than John Dillinger.

I have to be honest: I liked this pie, but I didn't love it. I think the chili oil permeates too much of the pizza, infusing all of the sauce and cheese so that I could barely distinguish their individual properties. All I could taste were chilies. It's still a delicious pizza, but as it turns out, it was to be my least favorite of the three "real" pizzas served to us that day.

Next came the Filetti, Palombino's ode to Anthony Mangieri's notoriously sparse menu. Forgoing red sauce for a simple canvas of mozzarella, basil, cherry tomatoes, and olive oil, the Filetti was a more subdued--but in my opinion, far more successful--pizza than the Soppressata Piccante. Do not mistake this to mean it lacked flavor, because that couldn't be further from the truth.

The Filetti was dynamite, a spot-on Bianca pie that tasted fresh, delicious, and authentically Italian. That same great crust made a return appearance here, its smoky char lending itself well to the creamy mozz and sweet, juicy tomatoes. I really liked this pie.

Finally, the house Margherita was set down before us, and with one bite it was clear they had saved the best for last. This was everything a Margherita should be, from the tang of the tomato sauce to the soft creaminess of the mozzarella di bufala. I could find no fault in it, and I would have eaten more if only I hadn't gorged myself on so many slices from the Soppressata and Filetti.

Between rounds of pizza, we were also treated to a discussion of pizza from Levine, Mangieri, and Palombino. Mangieri and Palombino both delved into their deep passion for pizza and the journey that had led them to New York. It was inspiring, and that enthusiasm came through visibly in the food we were consuming. I had assumed from the description of the Pieman's Craft event that we would be eating pizzas from both Mangieri and Palombino, but I later learned that all three of the pies served to us that afternoon were entirely Palombino's, and that Mangieri's contribution was to simply man the oven (the oven he had built, no less). I was more than a little disappointed upon hearing this revelation, but thankfully, there was a bright light at the end of the tunnel: Mangieri told us he was moving to San Francisco and would reopen Una Pizza Napoletana there sometime in 2010. Hooray!

My stomach full and my head swimming with the wine, I made my way toward the exit and struck up a conversation with Adam Kuban. We discussed how I'd come all the way from Portland, Oregon to come to this event and to try as much New York pizza as possible, and he pressed upon me the absolute importance of getting out to Brooklyn that night to sample the slices at Di Fara, as this would be the last night they would be open before I had to return to Oregon on Tuesday. The decision was made: it was Di Fara or bust!

To be continued...

3 comments:

  1. Great post. I hope you make it to my place one day. Drop me a note if you do - Jeff Varasano

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  2. Wow I know I'm a bit late on this, but great review Adam! It was great meeting you and talking endlessly about pies and slices, I hope we can do it again soon! I'll definitely be making a stop through Portland for the doc so you'll have to point my in the right direction. Hope the rest of your stay in NY was great!

    Ciao-
    Brooks

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  3. Thank you, Jeff and Brooks, for checking out my blog! Your blog is awesome, Brooks. If any of you haven't checked it out yet, go there now: pizzacommander.blogspot.com. It's the real deal.

    Anyway, let me know when you're in town, Brooks, and I'll make sure you hit all the places that matter.

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