Pizza-heads may need no reminder, but Anthony Mangieri, the man many consider the nation's finest Neapolitan pizza-maker, opened his long-awaited San Francisco spot Una Pizza Napoletana several weeks ago. Mangieri had shut down his wildly popular New York pizzeria of the same name in 2009, promising a move out West by early 2010; by the time he finally rolled up the metal gates in September, the pizza-mad citizens of San Francisco had lined up by the dozens, clamoring to get in. Eater wrote that some die-hard Mangieri fans had even flown out from New Jersey for the opening.
A few weeks later, Slice is ready to report.
Just like New York's Una Pizza Napoletana, the pizzeria operates only from 5 p.m. until that day's dough runs out; just like New York's Una Pizza Napoletana, the menu is stripped down to the extreme, with only wine, sodas, and five pizzas. (UPN New York had four: the Marinara, Margherita, tomatoless Bianca, and cherry-tomatoed Filetti. UPN SF adds the Ilaria, named for Mangieri's wife; it's a pizza of smoked mozzarella, fresh cherry tomatoes, arugula, and two of the Mangieri signatures: extra-virgin olive oil, and sea salt. But on our visit, the smoked mozzarella hadn't yet arrived.)
Each of these 12-inch pizzas will set you back $20, a price that we won't comment on, except to say that it's sure to deter or disappoint some. But judging by the scene outside UPN at 4:45 p.m. this Saturday night—where a line had already formed by the unmarked gate, a line that would be 20 deep by the time they opened at 5 p.m.—Mangieri won't have a problem selling his pizzas.
Full disclosure: I did not get the chance to eat at New York's Una Pizza Napoletana before it closed in 2009; however, spending as many hours each day as I do with Ed Levine and Adam Kuban, I've found myself as immersed in UPN lore as any person could be.
Walk in and you're staring down Mangieri himself. His workspace is a sparing counter set well in front of his blue-tiled oven—a pizza proscenium of sorts, such that he's visible from each one of the cavernous restaurant's 32 seats. The message isn't subtle. This is pizza as performance.
We tried the Filetti (pictured above) and the Margherita, swept over to our table only a minute or two after they were slid into the oven. The moment they were cool enough to tackle, it became clear that UPN deserves its somewhat extraordinary reputation. Neapolitan pizza is a spartan, almost ascetic composition, a food of utter simplicity, but it's hard to imagine any of its elements here improved upon.
The dough, picking up a gentle smokiness from the fire, was appealingly but sparingly charred, the cornicione's crisp shell a moment of tooth resistance before the beautifully elastic inner crust. The mozzarella, its milkiness commingling with the olive oil on each bite, had a delicate milk-pail freshness that neither the char nor the minimalist tomato sauce overwhelmed. Yes, each mouthful was delicious. But it's more than that—it's cerebral pizza, pizza that you find yourself thinking deeply about, whose subtle excellence becomes ever more apparent the more you reflect on it. Pizza that stands up to analysis, as my English professors would've said.
Despite my Bay Area roots, I haven't eaten at all of San Francisco's many new pizzerias, so I can't comment fairly on whether UPN trumps them all. What I can say? This is Neapolitan pizza of a level I've never seen surpassed.
Having eaten at a dozen hard-line orthodox Neapolitan-style pizzerias this year, easily, I'd started to feel that there was very little variation in the form—that some pizzaioli cling to dictums of San Marzano tomatoes and bufala mozzarella and Caputo flour and then stop there, turning out by-the-book pizza Margherita that resemble all the others in town. Don't get me wrong: a good pizza Margherita is a delicious, delicious thing, one whose making requires skill and knowledge that few have attained; there's a reason people go crazy for every Neapolitan opening. But once you clear a certain bar, it's long seemed to me, you're essentially eating the same pizza.
Not at Una Pizza Napoletana. Whether it's the campfire smokiness picked up by the dough, the almost elastic pull of the springy crust, the curious herbal breath of charred basil, the way his oil pour seems to draw out the creamy fat of the mozzarella—whether it's any of these, all of these—I felt as if I was tasting Neapolitan pizza as I'd never tasted it before. There are those (on Slice and elsewhere) who take issue with Neapolitan loyalists' hard-line approach toward pizza: the stance that theirs is the only true method, that the best pizza emerges from the perfection of a clear pizza ideal, rather than innovation or experimentation. I happen to believe that there's room for all kinds of pizza in this world of ours, and that Neapolitan pizza, its long history notwithstanding, is in no way inherently superior. But if Mangieri's orthodoxy and obsession have led him to create pizza like this, I'm all for it. Quite honestly, it restored my faith in the genre.