Motorino Hong Kong: Off to a Decent Start

[Photographs: Rachel Balota]

Motorino Hong Kong

14 Shelley Street, Soho, Hong Kong (Map); +852 2801 6881;  
Pizza type: Neapolitan
Oven type: Gas and wood-burning
The Skinny: Great toppings are let down by the crust, at various times soggy or burnt.
Price:The cheapest pizza is the Marinara at HK$98 (about US$12.60) and the most expensive are the Cherry Stone Clam and Colatura di Alici, both at HK$158 (about US $20.35).

It was with no small amount of excitement that multiple friends—from die-hard pizza aficionados in New York City to fellow expats who have been living a rather bleak, pizza-less existence—barraged me with the news that Motorino was opening its first international outpost here in Hong Kong. Needless to say, I was eager to see how the famed New York pizzeria was faring in its early weeks abroad.

Stepping off a narrow staircase in Hong Kong's Soho district into Chef Mathieu Palombino's Asian venture felt like walking through a portal into an upscale hipster joint in Brooklyn. Exposed brick, warm lighting, and spray painted wall motifs feature heavily in the décor, which of course wouldn't be complete without the large wooden pizza peel garnishing the entrance.

The Margherita

At first glance, our pies had a lot of promise. We found gorgeous leoparding on the cornicione, which boasts an airy texture and chewy bite. The toppings were generous, though perhaps to the point of excess. I enjoy a nice, soupy center to my Neapolitan pies, but these pizzas were positively drenched, and the crust didn't really stand a chance against the onslaught.

Our crust was too soggy for my taste.

The San Marzano tomatoes in our Margherita (HK$118, about US$15) were judiciously seasoned and brightly acidic, their natural sweetness coaxed out by a light dusting of pecorino. Generously scattered pillows of buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil leaves were in perfect proportion.

Burnt bubbles in the crust lent an acrid taste to the pies.

But it was let down by the crust, which had two problems: apart from the sodden center (which admittedly, some might prefer), the signature char of a wood-fired Neapolitan crust was taken just a step too far. Instead of its characteristic depth and smokiness, the char was overwhelmingly bitter, detracting from the otherwise subtle and well-balanced sweetness and tang of the toppings.

The Soppressata di Picante

The toppings again stole the show on our Soppressata di Picante (HK$138, about US$18). Punched up with the addition of fresh chilies and the sweet hum of garlic, the gentle heat of the spicy soppressata occasionally threatened to out-burn even this chili-lover. But the salve of fior di latte mellowed it just enough to appreciate the peppery notes in the extra virgin olive oil and fragrant oregano.

The undercarriage was excessively charred

Sadly, this pie—though covered with a slightly more even leopard-spotting—was more burnt than the Margherita, and even with the far more assertive flavors of the sausage and chili, I'd get mouthfuls that would almost make me wince with acrid bitterness. Which was such a shame, seeing as the un-burnt bits of crust I'd managed to pinch off had a warming, yeasty depth, and excellent texture.

Currently, the Hong Kong site is offering the same nine pizzas, and one weekend brunch pie, as in Motorino's East Village location. Some of the key ingredients, such as their olive oil, cheese, and soppressata, are sourced from Italy. And while I'm not sure that I'm ready to declare Motorino the best Neapolitan-style pizza in Hong Kong just yet, these guys are definitely showing loads of promise and dedication to their craft—not only do they only use Napoli Caputo flour, even the bricks and sand used by Stefano Ferrara in hand-building their custom oven hail from Naples, too! I'm confidently optimistic that with a little more time they'll earn the reputation that has followed them all the way across the Pacific.