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.
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.”
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.”