What he means is that it’s time to start the oven. Every true Neapolitan pizzeria begins with a proper oven, built to ancient specifications of size, shape, and material. Mangieri’s obsession with ovens knows few bounds; it has more than once wiped out his profit margin. The pizzeria’s celebrated current oven is a beautiful hemisphere on a square pedestal, lovingly tiled in tiny white hexagons, with its birthday (9-10-07) marked on the side. St. Antonio Abate, Mangieri’s name saint, is watching over it from an icon above. The oven is Mangieri’s fifth overall and second at this location. He didn’t like the previous one, built to order for him in New York by a Neapolitan maker, so he ripped it out and ordered a new one in Naples. Getting the 4,000-lb. monster across the ocean was a logistical nightmare. The entire storefront had to be removed to wedge it into the space. Una Pizza Napoletana shut down for three weeks in the middle of the summer while the Great Oven Switch transpired, and Ryzhkov ended up in the hospital when an interior wall collapsed on top of him. Counting the customs dues, Mangieri recalls, the upgrade ended up costing him almost $40,000.
Mangieri starts the fire by feeding the oven a few pieces of Estonian birch, which he prefers over the less “consistently seasoned” oak. He strips off the bark and uses it for kindling as one would newspaper. “I usually start it with my bills,” he jokes before growing serious. “You can’t use newspaper. Any kind of foreign object would be toxic.” Coal, for true Neapolitan pizza, is out of the question: Coal heat is “heavy, oppressive, and dirty,” Mangieri says. “Wood heat is alive, it’s moving.” He builds the fire off to the side to take advantage of the baking chamber’s round shape: This way, the flame licks the ceiling like a fiery comb-over, convecting the heat all around. The wood oven, he says, gives him the most control over the pie. The oven has to be stoked throughout the day and requires a whole buffet of fuel: slow-burning logs, fast-burning logs, slivers, and shavings for a quick burst of crust-charring heat. Because Mangieri insists on leaving plenty of space between the pies—so he can pay individual attention to each one—he bakes just three twelve-inch pizzas at a time. If a party of four orders four pizzas, one unlucky customer will have to pass the time with a clean sharing plate and friends’ generosity.
At five o’clock, the doors open and customers begin trickling in, mostly in garrulous groups. Many speak Italian. Una Pizza Napoletana’s clientele isn’t like a slice joint’s. There’s no dashing in and out; one is committing to a serious sit-down dinner, albeit one consisting of nothing but pizza. Many people, Mangieri points out, are regulars. (A few fans are even known to drive up each week from Point Pleasant, where his earlier location was.) This is good, as Mangieri sees it; it means fewer harebrained questions and infuriating substitution requests. “God, when I first started, people didn’t know what planet I was coming from,” says Mangieri. “Luckily, now the majority know what I’m doing.”
Mangieri’s take on his competition is similarly pointed, to say the least: Luzzo’s pizza is “garbage,” Kesté’s “tastes like shit.” “There’s no love,” he says of the latter. The idea that something he’s been doing for twenty years is suddenly trendy repulses him: “Every week, a new place opens. No one pays their dues. They see something that can make money and go, ‘Oh, let’s open a Neapolitan place.’ It’s disgusting!” Lately, he’s been mulling a move to the West Coast, where the lifestyle, at least, is more relaxed.
This brand of ornery perfectionism begs for a backlash, and sure enough, Una has its detractors—from the Village Voice, which cautiously allowed that its pizzas are “sometimes over-doughy” to the Web commenter who called Mangieri “an angry tattooed psycho.” A competitor claims that there’s often “a line of uncooked dough” running through the rim of Mangieri’s pizzas. Rosario Procino of Kesté, while giving credit to Mangieri as a pioneer, scoffs at his assertion that Neapolitan pizza means just Margherita and marinara, “which is b.s. In Naples there is almost 5,000 pizzerias. All of them make different pizzas. There’s only one pizzeria in Naples that does only Margherita and marinara.”
Mangieri, for his part, isn’t bothered by the charges that his is an inaccurate representation of the motherland. He’s over Naples, he says. “The best pizza I had there is as good as my pizza on a mediocre day. On a really good day, the pizza I make here blows away anything made in Naples.” He takes a pause. “And it breaks my heart.”