One look at Una Pizza Napoletana reveals both the depth and the focus of Mangieri’s obsession. From the street, it looks like nothing much, a simple neon sign on an otherwise unadorned storefront. Inside, the room is green and bare, its most noticeable decorations being a statuette of the Virgin Mary and a drawing of a many-eyed beast from the Book of Revelations. A plaque over the door says “Tras munezz,” a surly Neapolitan greeting that literally means “Trash comes in” but is closer in meaning to “Look what the cat dragged in.” The poem painted across a wall mirror is by Mangieri himself. He composed it, with his grandmother’s help, in the Neapolitan dialect after that fateful Naples trip. Three guesses as to what it’s about: “My heart / Neapolitan faith / Oil, mozzarella, tomatoes / Born in Naples, Naples with love.” Mangieri makes only four kinds of pizza, two of which are also defined by subtraction rather than addition: Margherita, marinara (no cheese), bianca (no sauce), and filetti (with fresh cherry tomatoes). There are no appetizers, no desserts, no salads, no slices, no substitutions, no delivery, no extra toppings. Mangieri won’t be seduced into hiring a guy to keep the place open Monday through Wednesday because he “might like it.”
“Where in New York do you walk in and feel, Wow, this is for real, this is not being run corporate? I don’t know any other place other than this, honestly. Do you?” Mangieri asks me, choosing between two fresh work shirts Ryzhkov is holding up. To play along, I suggest a tiny tamale place in Sunset Park. “But even in that situation,” Mangieri counters, “the quality of the ingredients is gonna be cheap shit, and they’re still doing it for money. Yeah, yeah, it’s family, it’s sticking to a tradition. But it’s still not striving for excellence.”
Today, like almost every day, the quest for excellence starts with making the dough. A small vat of it already sits on the counter, filling the closed shop with a warm, sour smell. Mangieri upends it into a large spiral mixer, followed by a 55-pound bag of flour, a carefully measured-out dose of water, and a scoop of fine, sparkling sea salt. Precision at this stage can mean the difference between ecstasy and ruin. “Nobody’s harder on themselves than us,” says Mangieri. “Some nights, the pizzas coming out are such crap.”
Mangieri uses 00 (finest-ground) wheat flour, crushed by stone and never bleached, enriched, or otherwise processed. “They basically gas it,” says Mangieri of bleaching flour. He doesn’t use yeast, either. Instead, in keeping with traditional methods, he lets the natural sugar in the flour pull the leavening bacteria from the air. The process takes more than a day. A piece of the previous night’s dough is used as the “starter” to kick off fermentation in the next batch. There are Neapolitan-pizza fetishists who keep their starter going like the eternal flame, smuggling out of Italy bits of dough with a supposedly unbroken 150-year bacterial pedigree. Mangieri doesn’t subscribe to this madness: “Once you add the water and the flour and the atmosphere of the new place, there’s nothing left of [the old bacteria].” But he admits to once having tried to keep a batch going while he took a three-week vacation. The resulting beige ooze ended up taking over his girlfriend’s kitchen.
The rest of the ingredients are as assiduously selected as the flour. The San Marzano tomatoes come from the eponymous town just outside of Naples, where the volcanic soil (from Mount Vesuvius, no less) produces a low-acid, barely seeded fruit worshipped by legions of Italian cooks. The mozzarella di bufala, from water-buffalo milk, used to come from around Naples, too—until freshness concerns forced him to reluctantly go domestic. He now alternates between Italian product and Bubalus Bubalis mozzarella from California.
With the exception of the cherry tomatoes for the filetti pizza, which come from Jersey when the season allows, Mangieri’s jet-fueled sourcing flies in the face of New York’s current obsession with local ingredients. It also makes for a remarkably expensive pie. At $21, Mangieri’s may, in fact, be New York’s most expensive twelve-inch pizza not involving caviar toppings. Value is not the point, of course. “We have no quarrel with the man who sells cheaper pizza,” reads the inscription atop what you could call Una’s manifesto. “He knows how much his is worth!”
It is now close to 2 p.m., and opening time is crawling near. Mangieri glops a tube of dough the size of a Yorkshire terrier onto a sheet where it will be subdivided into fist-size fragments for individual pies. “Greg, the mixer is ready whenever you want to clean it,” barks Mangieri. “I gotta rock and roll this. It’s getting late.”