On a wet Thursday morning, Anthony Mangieri pulls up to Una Pizza Napoletana, the tiny bunker of a restaurant he’s been operating in one form or another since 1996. “Operating,” in Mangieri’s case, means making every single pizza in the joint, day in and day out, with a monomaniacal, monkish devotion. The graffitied metal gate is halfway up, and Greg Ryzhkov, a Belarusian in a pageboy cap who’s alternately Una’s waiter, host, and runner, and Mangieri’s factotum, is taking a flour delivery as the boss arrives. They exchange terse hellos. Ryzhkov is the closest thing Mangieri has to a partner, which still doesn’t mean he gets to make pizza. In fact, the only time anyone else’s hands have stretched a disk of dough at Una Pizza Napoletana was in 2006, when Mangieri, having dislocated a finger, asked a friend to sub for him for a few days. He now appears to rue that lapse as a moment of weakness.
A wiry human doodle pad of Christian and punk tattoos, Mangieri is the unofficial front man for one of the more notable culinary phenomena to grip the city in years: the Naples-style pizza revolution. From Bed-Stuy to the Upper West Side, New York’s quintessential food is being redefined by a cadre of wild-eyed converts to a notion seductive in its romantic certitude: that the best pizza—the one true pizza—comes from Naples and Naples only, and the way to do it right is to obsessively re-create the ingredients, techniques, and all but the street smells of Naples. Everything else is an insult to flour, oil, tomatoes, cheese, and you.
The specifics are subject to much Talmudic debate, but the basic rundown is this: The pizza is a round, ovoid, or downright shapeless twelve-inch pie, indivisible (“no slices” is a proud policy at most Neapolitan-inspired establishments). The crust is thin, soft, and chewy, a stark reminder that the very word pizza is said to be a Neapolitan regional mispronunciation of pita. The rim, or cornicione, is puffed out and singed, with blisterlike burned bubbles. The sauces trend toward expensive simplicity—crushed San Marzano tomatoes are the norm, augmented only slightly with maybe a little fresh basil or garlic. The cheese, more often than not imported mozzarella di bufala, is used sparingly, a few discrete blots per pie. A drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil often finishes off the production.
All this adds up to a pizza that, to taste buds used to scads of scalding cheese and sugary red sauce, may at first seem bland—dietetic, even—in comparison to the beloved New York slice. Once you recalibrate your attention to the subtler details of taste, texture, and char, however, epiphanies have been known to ensue. And Neapolitan pizza aficionados are not shy about their love. Blogs, forums, and online videos wallow almost erotically in the minutiae of ingredients and preparation. Nearly all of the most celebrated newish pizzerias in town—Kesté, Motorino, Zero Otto Nove—call themselves Neapolitan. Luzzo’s, a somewhat older Neapolitan joint, is all of 300 feet from Mangieri’s place, and its owner’s disciple has recently opened his own joint, Saraghina, in Bed-Stuy.
Una Pizza Napoletana is both one of the movement’s originators and its zealot fringe—its one-man Opus Dei, if you will. Even from admirers, the restaurant tends to draw a certain kind of epithet: “ultraserious,” “hard-core,” “austere.” It’s less a business than an obsessive ongoing dissertation on the essence of Naples. The thing is, Mangieri is not himself from Naples. He is from the New Jersey Shore, hailing from an Italian-American family with a proud New Jersey food-business history. His grandfather ran Mangieri Brothers, a successful gelato and candy shop, in Maplewood. At 14, Anthony visited Italy. “I was really in love with everything about Naples—the pizza, and the bread, and the pastries, and the women,” Mangieri recalls. (Note the order.) Soon after his return, he began trying to make pizzas in the family fireplace. In 1993, Mangieri opened his own bakery, Sant Arsenio, specializing in Neapolitan bread. What he really wanted to open was a pizzeria, but he couldn’t scrape together the money for tables or a public restroom. It didn’t take. “All my friends were going out and having girlfriends,” he says, “and I was making bread twenty hours a day and making a hundred dollars a week.” As a last stab at the pizza dream, he borrowed money from his father and grandmother and opened the first iteration of Una Pizza Napoletana in Point Pleasant, near the ocean. He expected to close it within the year and get out of the trade. Instead, something happened: He developed a small but fantastically loyal clientele. On the strength of these early conversions, Mangieri made enough money to move the operation to Manhattan in 2004.