"VPN accreditation aside, the regular New York slice is more authentic, truer to type and just plain tastier than the Neapolitan pies."
200 Park Avenue, New York NY 10166; map); 212-972-7001; website
Pizza Style: Neapolitan, VPN-certified
Oven Type: Wood-fired
The Skinny: This VPN-certified pizzeria fails to live up to the promise of the ingredients and oven, but there is an unexpected pleasure in the take-out section. Avoid the sit-down side of the restaurant and opt instead for the to-go slices
Price:Dine-in, Individual 10-inch pie, $16.95; take-away Neapolitan slice, $2.75; take-away NYC-style slice, $1.90
Notes: Pick-up and delivery available: 212-972-7000
Naples 45 is a sprawling, glittery restaurant located within the MetLife building that happens to be VPN-certified. Having eaten at the two other VPN-certified restaurants in New York (La Pizza Fresca [March 5, 2010] and Kesté [March 8, 2010]) just last week, I thought I should venture up to Midtown and see how Naples 45 stacked up.
The restaurant is not strictly a pizzeria; the menu offers a range of pastas and other Italian fare, and the place is certainly more upscale than your average pizzeria. It is staffed by hosts in suits and offers an extensive wine list. While the restaurant seems to attempt to create a casual mood, the place feels a bit stiff and a bit corporate. A fact not helped by the building's overzealous security guards, who will pounce on you for merely taking a picture of the restaurant exterior. That's never happened to me at a pizzeria before. Come to think of it, that's never happened to me at any sort of restaurant before.
Three ovens are used to pump pies for the restaurant as well as take out and delivery.
The Margherita DOC, surely the litmus test of a true Neapolitan pie, is the first thing on the the pizza menu and the last thing I would order here again. It is a pie with such potential—San Marzano tomatoes, hand-made fior de latte, Caputo flour, all cooked in a wood-burning oven, several factors involved in meeting VPN standards. Yet the resulting pizza is only spectacular in its mediocrity.
The cheese, a fior de latte, is completely dried out to the point of being pockmarked with black blisters—something I only want to see on the crust of a DOC pie; sadly the crust here was completely missing them.
The dough is dense and far too crisp. It has no resilience, no puffiness, no life. Unlike the cornicione of the best Neapolitan pizzas, which rise up like an inner tube of a bicycle tire and with almost as much air, the crust at Naples 45 is flat, barely rising above the cheese, and is crackerlike in consistency. I almost always finish the crust on Neapolitan pizza but this one was so dense that it was a chore to eat, the crust equivalent of a Monday morning. The center of the pie, which should require a knife and fork to consume, can easily be eaten by hand. I have seen more tip sag on New York street slices. Frankly, the dough feels overworked.
A sausage pie turned out to be much more palatable, though not because the foundation was any better. The sausage (despite being rather anemic and lacking succulence) was redolent with fennel.
I wonder what happened along the way that led to the pizza at Naples 45 devolving to its current state. Assuming, of course, that when they initially earned VPN certification they served a pie in keeping with what is served in Naples—a soft, liquid center surrounded by a soft, puffy cornicione. Perhaps the kitchen got sick of people complaining about the pies being undercooked and just started sending them all out well-done.
If so, it does raise a question about VPN certification: Are there any follow-up visits? And shouldn't part of the certification ensure that the restaurant educate its customers rather than cater to their whims? The mission of the VPN—a mission I wholeheartedly support—is to preserve a particular way of doing things rather than merely sanctioning ingredients and equipment.
Or perhaps the problem is that two different sizes of pizzas are served and that the ovens seem to be rather crowded—even though there are three of them. The restaurant is large and bustling; I bet they sell more pizza in a day than most VPN pizzerias sell in a week. And they even have a take-out and delivery section in the restaurant that sells pies by the slice. Here you can see the "Mezzo metro" sized pies—elongated, almost rectangular pies. They are no better than the personal-sized pies, although the crust is dense and laden with more toppings.
What's Worth Eating at Naples 45
And yet, among all this dysfunction, all these missed marks, there is a glimmer of hope for the pizza aficionado at Naples 45. Tucked away off to the side sits the unassuming selection of "New York–style" pizza. Classically constructed with the sweet sauce that is used on the other pies and with low-moisture mozzarella (the sort of cheese that can happily spend a lot of time in the oven without losing vitality), a plain slice only cost $1.90, and it is marvelous.
My fist bite was instantly familiar. The sweetness of the sauce; the soft, pliant crust (tender and yielding, yet with some snap and crunch); the milky cheese—all reminded me of Patsy's in East Harlem. Admittedly there was a little too much cheese on the slice, and it didn't have the sooty dusting and corresponding acridity of Patsy's, but it was close. The wood-fired oven did a good job on the crust, which seems to work better here than in anything else I tried.
It is ironic that the most unassuming and the cheapest offering at Naples 45 is also the easiest to recommend. Especially because it seems like a mere afterthought. The VPN accreditation aside, the regular New York slice is more authentic, truer to type and just plain tastier than the Neapolitan pies. which are just disappointing.