La Pizza Fresca
31 East 20th Street New York NY 10003 (map); 212-598-0141; lapizzafresca.com
Pizza Style: Neapolitan
Oven Type: Wood-fired oven
The Skinny? This VPN-certified (since 1997) restaurant serves a fine example of Neapolitan-style pizza
Price: Margherita, $17; variations, $18 to $20
In 1983 acclaimed filmmaker George Lucas tasked audio engineer Tomlinson Holman with developing a standard to insure that the audience would hear in the theater what the director heard in the screening room when mixing a film. The result of a yearlong analysis by Holman became known as THX. (The name was probably derived from Lucas' first film, THX 1138, although some dubbed it the Tomlinson Holman eXperience.) THX is not, as is often believed, an audio delivery system like Dolby or DTS surround sound but rather a set of metrics governing such things as room reverberation, amplifier power, ambient noise and light, and dynamic range. It is intended to guarantee a consistent experience from theater to theater. THX does not manufacture audio systems; rather it certifies theaters to insure that they comply with the THX standard. With the rise in popularity of Dolby surround sound and home theater in the early 1990s, THX began certifying home-audio equipment. It is now possible to assemble an entire THX-certified surround sound system in the home. THX sound systems can sound wonderful, but it is not the only way to get great sound in the home—it is possible to assemble a system that is equally compelling without certified components. THX reminds me of another organization that uses an acronym: the VPN (Verace Pizza Napoletana Association).
VPN is sort of like a THX for Neapolitan-style pizza. VPN does not make pizza any more than THX makes audio equipment, rather, it is a certification body. VPN attempts to ensure that there will a consistent pizza experience when eating at a certified restaurant. Thus a set of parameters were established—only wood-burning ovens are used, the tomatoes must be from Naples, the cheese buffalo mozzarella, etc. I have had very good pizza in VPN-certified restaurants. But just like THX in audio, I don't think that VPN certification is the only way to get great pizza. In fact, the pizza that came closest to what I experienced in Naples outside of the city—Una Pizza Napoletana and Motorino—are not VPN-certified.
La Pizza Fresca is VPN-certified and has been so since 1997, making it far ahead of the Neapolitan trend of the last few years. And fortunately, in this case, the pizza lives up to the certification. While it might be perhaps a step behind the aforementioned restaurants, it is nonetheless a credible iteration of the Neapolitan style and since it is a full-service restaurant has a better chance of being awarded more than one star in the New York Times than say, Motorino. The pizza may be what most people eat here, at least in my experience, but there are plenty of other charms on the classic trattoria menu and voluminous wine list.
Alejandro Rivas has been the pizzaiolo at La Pizza Fresca since they opened their doors and fired up the brick oven. He has made tens of thousands of pizzas in the ensuing years, working six days a week at both lunch and dinner. He does get Saturdays off, his boss taking over the oven duties, but I bet the pies are not quite as good on those days. I asked Rivas if he eats pizza on his day off. He looked at me like I was nuts.
Rivas works the dough with surprising delicacy given his meaty, powerful looking hands. But he tenderly flattens the ball in to a disk pressing his fingers slightly harder towards the edge to form the cornicione.
The San Marzano tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella come straight from Naples. Eat at La Pizza Fresca at lunch time and you might see the cheese being delivered in large, sealed polystyrene boxes, they sort of look like they contain organs for transplant. The only ingredients beyond the cheese and sauce are a sprinkling of salt and Parmigiano-Reggiano, some sprigs of fresh basil.....
....and a dousing of extra virgin olive oil.
The wood fired oven runs at a blazing 900 degrees and a pie takes only about two minutes to cook. I asked how many pies would fit in the oven because it looked quite large. Rivas said that he only ever makes four at a time. He could fit more inside but with a two minute cooking time it is hard to keep track of more. The extra wait is worth it, the pies are consistently similar at La Pizza Fresca, at least in my experience.
The pie that emerges from the oven, smoke billowing from the charred crust, is classic Neopolitan.
The cornicione is puffy and light, it does not rise up as high as that of, for example Motorino, but it is commendable none the less. The crust itself has a yeasty tang and the center is soft and milky, the cheese and sauce forming that amorphous mass that I find so wonderful. If you like crisp crust from tip to arch this is not the pizza for you, knife and fork are required. The sweet, vibrant sauce (it betrays glimpses of fresh tomato even when cooked in the oven) and creamy cheese, spiked with basil and salt, collude to provide a pleasing and familiar synergy.
La Pizza Fresca might be VPN certified, but it offers a number of pizza that are not quite as elemental. Who could resist the salami picanti for example? A pie larded with salami and dotted with olives. The edges of the salami get slightly burnt adding a salty, smoky character to the pizza.
VPN accreditation is no guarantee of a great pizza, but La Pizza Fresca lives up to the potential of the billing. The pies that emerge from the brick oven ring true because, like a great movie soundtrack, the individual ingredients speak with their own voice but contribute to a greater purpose.
In the same way that a properly calibrated THX sound system can allow a directors vision to come through, this VPN certified pizza can give you a good slice of what the Neapolitans enjoy.