Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Impressions: Una Pizza Napoletana

210 11th Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 861-3444

[Photographs: Adam Lindsley]

I briefly met Anthony Mangieri in 2009, right after he sold the New York location of the much-lauded Una Pizza Napoletana (UPN) to Mathieu Palombino (he of Motorino fame). Mangieri was manning the oven for a Serious Eats event while Palombino made the actual pies, so despite being in the same room with him, I still hadn’t had his pizza, not really.

Fast-forward to a 2012 trip to San Francisco (my honeymoon, actually). Mangieri had by then moved UPN to the West Coast and continued to reign as undisputed king of the United States’ Neapolitan pizza scene. On this particular visit, I wanted to eat at Una Pizza Napoletana more than any other restaurant, and it finally happened. Yes, it was good. Great, even. But I couldn’t help but leave disappointed. And I’ll tell you why.

In the years between 2009 and 2012, I have eaten a lot of authentic Neapolitan pizza. And I mean a lot of it. There are certainly degrees of quality from one location to the next, but generally most places attempting to do authentic Neapolitan pizza hit pretty close to the mark. But even the very best places I tried (Keste in New York City comes to mind) couldn’t definitively best my favorite non-Neapolitan pizzas across the country (Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, Ken's or Apizza Scholls here in Portland, or Di Fara in New York, for example). Given that UPN receives so much praise from pizza aficionados year after year while Keste receives far less, I assumed that Mangieri must put out a product that's clearly of a much higher caliber.

Based on this visit, I would have to say he doesn't. At least not in 2012 with all of today's competition.

Before you spew your cola all over your keyboard, let me first assure you that the pizza at UPN is of the highest caliber. By that I mean that it was as good as any Neapolitan pizza I’ve ever eaten--but no better. Everything about the pizza was excellent, but then so is the pizza at Keste. 

What I’m trying to say is that I had hoped with all my heart that Mangieri would take Neapolitan pizza to a higher level, and he didn’t, and because of that, I was disappointed. I was disappointed because it confirms for me, at least without leaving the country, that Neapolitan pizza has flown as high as it can go. It is not the zenith of pizza.*

With all that said, let’s talk about the actual pizza. Make no mistake, it is very, very good. At $20 a pop, I couldn’t really afford to try more than two, but two pizzas are plenty for two people, especially because most of the pizzas on the menu are only slight variations of the others.

I started with the Margherita, and a gorgeous Margherita it was. Beautiful blistered cornicione, vibrant and fresh-tasting tomato sauce, and milky buffalo mozzarella. I do wish there was more basil, but what was there accomplished its given task. It arrives uncut, one of my pizza pet peeves, but given that Mangieri is aiming for the authentic target here, it’s hard to complain too much.

I will say this about Mangieri’s dough: it is more flavorful than the dough served at 90% of competing Neapolitan pizzerias. There’s a distinct flavor of fermented yeast in the crust, and coupled with the carbonized mottling it really is a pleasure for the palate. The intense heat from the wood-burning oven promises a thin, crisp exterior to the dough and a soft, airy inner crumb with ample elasticity. I’ve eaten better-tasting Neapolitan crusts before, but not many.

Besides the meager application of basil, my only modest complaint with the pizza was that the buffalo mozzarella had not quite fully melted. Typically, melting isn’t a problem with buffalo mozzarella; it’s much creamier than cow’s milk mozzarella, and in my experience often ends up a little soupy on the finished pie. But here it was just shy of rubbery, in that buffalo mozzarella purgatorial zone between cold lump and cheese pool. Probably an unavoidable misstep given that any longer in the oven may have burned the crust, so perhaps the oven wasn’t cooperating fully that day.

Much has been said of the fruity olive oil Mangieri uses to finish off his pizzas, but I honestly couldn’t pick it out among the other flavors on the Margherita. If this is a major contributing factor to the $20 price tag on these pizzas, then I would humbly make the suggestion to find something just as good but less expensive. Because--tangent alert--I think $20 is too much to pay for this pizza. Sorry, but it’s how I feel. Even considering San Francisco rent prices, this feels high to me. Pizzeria Delfina sells an excellent Margherita about a mile away for only $13. Delfina may not be using the imported ingredients Mangieri uses, but if the end product is nearly as good (or just as good, depending on who you talk to), those seven extra dollars are hard to fork over. You could make the same argument for Di Fara in New York, which charges $5 for a slice of pizza, except in that case I really do feel like the pizza is superior to just about everyone else’s. At UPN, the pizza’s not head and shoulders above everyone else’s, so the premium isn’t worthwhile to me.

Okay, rant over.

The flavors on the Filetti were a bit more muted than I would have liked (in pretty stark contrast to the Filetti I had at Motorino in 2009), but it was still a well-executed, delicious pie. No tomato sauce here, just buffalo mozzarella (again, not quite melted, as you can see most clearly in the chunks near the top of the photo above), olive oil, sea salt, basil, garlic, and cherry tomatoes. The key to using fresh tomatoes on a pizza is to cook them, either on the pizza in the oven or beforehand and added to the pizza post-oven. These were fantastic. They burst with sweet juices. The garlic also came through quite strong, and those are really the dominant flavors on this pizza: tomatoes and garlic. Again, I felt it came across a little muted, but far from bland. I liked the Margherita better, but this is an interesting take on a white pie nonetheless.

I’m aware these opinions differ somewhat from the established collective response to Una Pizza Napoletana. I think it’s important to note that these are only one person’s thoughts, and they’re based on one visit to UPN (which is why this write-up is just an “Impressions” rather than an authoritative “Review”). Anthony Mangieri’s Neapolitan pizza is as good as I’ve had, and if Neapolitan pizza is all you’re seeking, you won’t be unhappy (although the price might make you think twice about fully exploring the menu). UPN is proof that you can only take rigidly defined authenticity so far, and as good as it is, I think this country has taken pizza to farther and better places. Anthony Mangieri can’t be faulted for making Neapolitan pizza, though, and I wouldn't want the Neapolitan style to go away, because sometimes it's what I crave. Mangieri making something he loves, and he’s not advertising it as anything other than real Neapolitan pizza, so how can anyone (like me, for example) expect otherwise?

OVEN: Wood


*I say this knowing full well that I haven’t visited Naples yet, but given the opinions of many people whose palates I respect, I don’t believe they’re making it any better over there. Watch, someday I’ll eat my words...