I arrived at Mario's one scorching summer day just before noon, weak from hunger. I looked at the menu, full of classic red-sauce, Neapolitan-American items. There was no pizza to be found. My waiter came over. "Do you still serve pizza here?" I asked. "Yeah, we got it," he said grudgingly, the way a Cadillac dealer might admit he also sells Hondas. I ordered my usual (large half sausage, half plain) and reflected on my rather curious interaction with the waiter. I remembered that when I ate at Mario's a few years ago, for a story I was working on, the fifth-generation owner, Joseph Migliucci, discouraged people from ordering just pizza at his fine-dining establishment. The pizza arrived ten minutes later. It was a superior pie: crisp, slightly bready crust; terrific fennel-flecked sausage from a local butcher; fresh basil; a sprinkling of Parmigiano-Reggiano; and a simple tomato sauce not overburdened with unnecessary herbs and spices. It would have been a world-class pie if the fresh mozzarella I had asked for (I know they make mozzarella every day at the restaurant for other dishes on the menu) had found its way to the pie. The aged mozzarella was obviously high quality and full fat, but the yellow color gave away its age.
I spotted Migliucci sitting on a chair just in front of the swinging kitchen door. I asked, "Why do you make it so hard to order pizza? You make a great pie here." He smiled and said, "It is good, isn't it? I don't have a problem with people ordering pizza at lunch, but at dinner it's hard to make money if people are occupying tables for four ordering pizza and soft drinks." Migliucci then went on to tell me that his great grandparents had opened Mario's on Arthur Avenue in 1919, serving pizza and other dishes from their native Naples. Before that, they had owned pizzeria/restaurants in East Harlem, Naples, and that hotbed of pizza activity, Cairo, Egypt. Migliucci's father once told the New York Times's Craig Claiborne, "My grandparents left Naples with my father in the early 1900s and opened the first Italian restaurant ever in Egypt. It was a success, but my father became restless and decided to come to America."
As I was leaving I implored Migliucci to restore pizza to its rightful place on his menu. He laughed. "You know what happened. The chains gave pizza a bad name. They open pizza shops. We're a pizzeria, not a pizza shop." So I'll let you in on one of the worst-kept secrets in pizzadom: They have excellent pizza at Mario's, the reluctant pizzeria.
Location: 2342 Arthur Avenue (between 184th and 186th streets), The Bronx NY 10458 [Map]