On a Monday night not long ago, I popped into Via Tribunali New York, the sole East Coast outpost of the Seattle-born pizza chain. My companion and I were taken into the dining room (about the size of a rich man's tool shed), and seated under a picture of the Bay of Naples. The vista depicted the Naples of a bygone era—a nostalgic vision of the old country.
Looking around the Lower East Side space, you'll find that image to be just one of several signifiers that tastefully insist upon the little pizzeria's Neapolitan credentials. High shelves hold canned tomatoes and tins of olive oil; a hand-cranked meat slicer sits on a table that hugs one of the earth-toned brick walls. To-go boxes are stamped, in the mother tongue, "True Neapolitan pizza." And, of course, there's the giant Galapagos tortoise in the room: Via Tribunali's wood-fired pizza oven, manned by a long-haired pizzaiolo.
With the scene thus set, naturally I entered the meal with high hopes. If all went well with the dough, sauce, cheese, and oven, I thought, this picture hanging overhead would cease to be just a picture; it'd become a real-life thought bubble, a magic school bus to old-school Napoli!
Yes, I realize how silly that sounds.
Anyway, back to the serious business at hand: how does Via Tribunali stack up? The nearly two-year-old spot is a worthy addition to city's pizza scene, but falls short of unseating any presiding royalty. Joints like Franny's and Motorino are notches more sublime. But what Via Tribunali does well, it does very, very well. The (few) missteps and inconsistencies I noticed amounted to minor infractions against what were largely delicious and deeply satisfying pies.
The Quattro Formaggi ($16) is well-served by a masterful selection of cheeses, delivering a rich harmony of big, savory flavors. The VTNY menu has undergone a tune-up lately, which at the time of this writing isn't reflected on the website. The four-cheese pie was evidently one of the menu items updated, as the toppings now include basil, locally smoked provola, gorgonzola, fresh mozzarella, and Parmigiano-Reggiano (the menu currently posted online lists fior di latte, provola, gorgonzola, ricotta, and basil). The gorgonzola lent practically every bite a mouth-watering brightness and complexity. However, I'd love to see this pie dressed by a slightly lighter hand. An entire pie's worth of dairy-driven richness, dispensed at these levels, may prove tough to stomach for some.
The crust is about 80 percent pleasurable—and that's a by-area figure. Pockets of the undercarriage, concentrated toward the center of the pie, were somewhat tough and chewy, while the rest of the crust was delightfully buoyant. (The same consistency issue also turned up in the Margherita pie, which I'll turn to shortly.) And if you're anything like me, you'll love the cornicione; the oven graces the lips of VTNY's pies with smoky, crispy, addictively full-flavored spotting.
Always a reliable benchmark of quality among Neapolitan pizza spots, the Margherita ($14) does a good job showcasing Via Tribunali's vibrant, well-balanced tomato sauce. Once again, with a touch less muzzling cheese, this pie would be singing an even more dulcet tune. I favor a healthy dose of basil on my Margs; that inky, fragrant, herbaceous element adds all-important complexity. I wish I could have discerned more of that flavor here.
Thankfully, though, Via Tribunali New York's authentic Neapolitan bona fides aren't limited to the decor or, say, their handy pizza scissors. From the tasty tomato sauce, to the wonderful cheeses, to the at-times dazzling, at-times volatile oven, there's genuine, wistful pleasure to be found.