Lately, there has been a lot of talk about how San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area has overtaken New York City as the food capital of America, and for good reasons. Compared to NYC where chefs are flocking high-end concepts for cheaper and safer ones amid pressure for rising costs such that it is kind of hard to find the next great thing in the city’s still demanding dining scene, places like San Francisco, Oakland and the Napa/Sonoma wine country seems to have some truly exciting places that do not play safe. California seems to be where the next generation of talented chefs can truly experiment with different ingredients and techniques and develop their culinary vision over time. When Anthony Mangieri decided to shutter his San Francisco operation of critically acclaimed Una Pizza Napoletana (following his times in Jersey Shore and then in Manhattan’s East Village) and come back to Lower East Side for his fourth journey, I was hoping that this move would at least help New York score a few points from the Bay Area in the dining capital of the country rankings. Mr. Mangieri has been such an influential figure in the national discourse on the best pizzas, so his homecoming could only add positives to New York’s already stacked pizza scene, with such great options like Emily/Emmy Squared, Di Fara, Speedy Romeo and Roberta’s. On a recent visit with our friends, my wife Jun and I found that the new Una Pizza unfortunately is a liability to New York’s pizza reputation, at least in its current state.
Curiously, Mr. Mangieri decided to partner with chefs Fabian von Hauske and Jeremiah Stone of Contra/Wildair fame. For a pizzeria to bring together experimental small plate appetizers seems like a bizarre move. Still, the two appetizers that we had tried at the bar (we were not able to get seated until our last person from the group arrived and got hungry as we were waiting at the bar) were pretty delicious. Scallop crudo was fresh and the caper leaf, lemon and couscous added another layer of texture that was quite clever. And if Wildair has carne cruda with beef tenderloin with pistachio and olive, I would gladly come back to the restaurant after not having been in a couple of years to try this dish again. The textural complexity of the beef was quite remarkable, and our dining group quickly finished this in minutes. After we finally got seated at the table, we proceeded to order three pizzas. On a general note, the pizzas at Una Pizza were a little too thick on the dough composition, which was a minus for Jun and I who had grown used to thin crust pies (in addition to feeling less guilty with our calorie intake, we also found that pies that did not go overboard on the dough thickness tended to also focus more on the ingredients on top of the pies).
In addition, each pie didn’t strike us as anything quite special. The best of the three was the filetti pie consisting of fresh tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala cheese and basil that was pretty well-balanced in flavor. On the other hand, margherita (which was supposed to be the signature pie at the restaurant) was uninteresting and tasted rather bland, while the apollonia pie that was a special menu on every Saturday was a pure disaster with mozzarella di bufala and parmigiana cheese, eggs, salami and black pepper over-flavored with salt as if a member of kitchen staff accidentally dropped an entire bowl of salt on top of the pie. Everyone still had room for dessert, but in retrospect I should’ve led people to nearby ice cream shops in the neighborhood. While vanilla black pepper ice cream was solid with its interesting flavor, tiramisu was loaded with salt; a little bit of salt would’ve been a great enhancer to a dessert’s flavor (which is why salted caramel is one of my favorite ice cream flavors), but the way the kitchen went overboard is not a good idea.
Una Pizza doesn’t accept any reservations but the turnover at the restaurant is fairly quick so you would not have too much trouble getting a table. The color-less, dystopian décor of the dining space was utterly confusing; I just wish Mr. Mangieri decided to go for a straightforward, cozy neighborhood type of space that can work for a variety of occasions. I certainly wouldn’t bring my or Jun’s parents to this weirdly depressing space. The wine list at Una Pizza is almost all natural wines, another minus factor for Jun and I (as our distaste for these varieties should be quite evident for anyone who has followed my blog). The service overall was fine, but why write the pizza menus all in Italian (and the rest of the menus in English)? This is after all a restaurant in America. It was one of many signs of the restaurant was trying to project a story of two halves, one from Mr. Mangieri’s pizzeria tradition and the other from Contra/Wildair duo’s sexy, millennial appeal. As Pete Wells in NY Times observed, so far it is an underwhelming if not failing marriage. Jun and I did not honestly know what to make of Una Pizza, and I don’t know if I want to come anytime soon unless major changes are in place to bring together a more coherent culinary message to the place. My next indulgence with pizza will have to come from elsewhere; perhaps I should venture a long wait with Jun outside Di Fara next time we have a pizza craving.
KenScale: 7.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 7.25/10)
- Creativity: 7.5/10
- Execution: 7.0/10
- Ingredients: 7.5/10
- Flavor: 7.0/10
- Texture: 7.5/10
- Value: 7.5/10
Address: 175 Orchard Street, New York, NY 10002
Telephone: (646) 692 3475