Photographs by Danny Kim/New York Magazine
By now, there’s barely a pizza-loving New Yorker unfamiliar with pizza Napoletana, the venerated art form that has infiltrated all corners of the city. Softer and wetter than our homegrown pies, this Italian import has turned the humble tools of the trade—soft Italian 00 wheat flour, buffalo mozzarella, and San Marzano tomatoes—into fetishized objects. But nothing, perhaps, is as obsessed over by puritanical pizzaioli and the people who love them as the wood-burning beehive oven, typically built by fifth-generation craftsmen, brick by hallowed brick.
Change may be afoot. There’s a new (old) pizza in town, and its construction depends in large part on another, less glamorous piece of kitchen equipment: the deep fryer. The pizza in question is called montanara, and it recently debuted at a couple of New York’s buzziest new pizzerias. It just might be the most exciting development on the flatbread front since Gennaro Lombardi first lugged a pie out of his coal oven.
So, you ask, what is this montanara you speak of? It’s this: a round of regular pizza dough strategically dimpled like focaccia, then plunged into the deep fryer for a few seconds. After it’s fished out, it’s placed in a pan and lightly topped: tomato, mozzarella, usually a sharp grated cheese of one sort or another, and basil. Then it’s given a quick whirl in a scorching-hot oven. Depending on whom you ask, the name comes either from the fact that the craggy blob looks vaguely mountainous or that it’s in the style of the poor and apparently mountain-dwelling pizzaiolo’s wife, who collected the day’s leftover dough from her husband and pan-fried it at home to sell for extra cash on the side.
PizzArte in midtown was the first to herald the montanara’s arrival hereabouts, but a delayed gas-line hookup meant that the hot new pie was destined to make its debut elsewhere—at Forcella in Williamsburg, courtesy of the Naples-born pizzaiolo Giulio Adriani. It has since materialized at Adriani’s new bigger, glitzier Noho outpost, where it quickly won the Underground Gourmet’s heart and stomach. Even the U.G.’s misguided anti-pizza-Napoletana friends admit they love it. And how could they not? Forcella’s montanara is light and airy and surprisingly ungreasy, with a crisp edge and a crumb infused with a faintly sweet fried-dough flavor that complements the creamy cheese and the tangy tomato. There’s a nice bit of char on the cornicione, or crust edge (though none on the bottom, thanks to its pan baking), which only adds to the winning contrasts of flavor. Against all odds, it doesn’t sink in your stomach like a medicine ball, but rather seemingly floats. It’s like Italian-government-sanctioned Verace Pizza Napoletana pizza by way of the Feast of San Gennaro.
As good as the montanara is, you’ll want to supplement your pizza binge at Forcella with one of Adriani’s traditional pies, which are in the same pristine, heavily charred, wood-fired league as the best pizza Napoletana in town. (Speaking of the competition, Kesté’s Roberto Caporuscio plans to serve a montanara at his new pizzeria, Don Antonio, opening soon in Hell’s Kitchen.) We recommend the Margherita Regina (the Über–pizza Napoletana) and the Fuorigrotta (mozzarella, lemon, arugula, and Pecorino). While killjoys might bemoan the lack of variety on the carb- and fry-happy menu (other than a handful of salads and a decent bean soup), you have to admit that Adriani knows how to stay on theme: You can warm up for your montanara with miniature, unbaked versions called pizzelle di nonna, and wash it down with a pair of deep-fried-pizza-dough desserts (the Nutella-drizzled angioletti or a whimsical millefoglie).
Uptown at PizzArte, a sleek, high-gloss shrine to Neapolitan food and art (the paintings are all for sale), a slightly different montanara eventually made its way onto the menu: Puffier than Forcella’s, with no discernible cornicione and considerably less char, this one rises high, like the mountains evoked by the name of the dish. Here, it gets a sprinkle of caciocavallo cheese, which adds a welcome sharp tang to the mildly sweet dough. It can be had in miniature form as well, in the frittura all’italiana appetizer, where it appears simply fried, not baked, in the company of crunchy potato croquettes and rice balls, less-crisp matchsticks of zucchini, and unadorned lumps of fried dough called pizza fritters, which might be taking the whole deep-fried enterprise a little too far. Even if you’ve made the trek to this polished space simply for the featured attraction, you might consider supplementing your fried-dough quota with the verdure, a very nice plate of marinated zucchini, chile-flecked broccoli rabe, and a luscious heap of soft-cooked eggplant and tomatoes. The menu is rounded out by perfectly fine salads and pastas, including a smoky penne alla Ferdinando and a paccheri festooned with nubbins of salt cod, but most clientele, especially the ebullient clusters of Italian expats, are there for the pizzas, and they’re worth the trip. The flavor of the dough is noticeably salty and complex, and the pies characterized by a modest cornicione and a light speckling of char. Service is attentive and well meaning, and although we must steer you away from a bafflingly bad Negroni, there is a Gragnano, Campania’s famous “pizza wine,” available by the bottle and the glass.
Should you desire dessert, the kitchen offers an off-the-menu pizza Nutella, split and then slathered with the stuff, and showered with cocoa and powdered sugar. It is not, as far as we know, deep-fried, but it doesn’t seem to suffer for the lapse.