246 Washington Avenue Nutley, NJ 07110 (map); 973-662-0007; queenmargherita.com
Pizza style: Neapolitan
Oven type: Wood-Burning Oven
The skinny: Exceptional margherita and special pies.
Notes: BYOB. Reservations strongly recommended.
Price: Pizzas $9.50 to $12.50
When Dozzino's Marc Magliozzi first told me about one of his favorite pizzerias, I had to see what the fuss was about. I have a confession to make—with exception of a select few establishments, I've grown a bit weary of formulaic Margherita pizzas. Although the Neapolitan-style trend has done much to elevate the general public taste for pizza, the cynical side of me grows when I hear any mention of Stefano Ferraro ovens, San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, Caputo flour, and so on. These days, a Neapolitan-style pizza has to be uniquely excellent for me to take notice.
Ladies and gentlemen, the current staff at Queen Margherita in Nutley, New Jersey have produced a pie that took my breath away.
Chef and co-owner Nicola Di Palma immigrated to New Jersey from Naples in the 1990s and worked a while in area restaurants. He then invited his brother Pasquale to start a new venture in a former pharmacy in Nutley. Pasquale built the pizza oven from scratch and Nicola took care of every dish that left the kitchen. Upon opening in 2004, the place was a hit and the long lines that continue to this day necessitate making advance reservations to guarantee a seat. Two years ago, they hired Kyle Toner, an experienced cook and self-taught pizza chef, to take care of the pizza side of the menu.
The waiters first brought out this bread made from the same dough as the pizza. The first bite revealed a slightly dense but exceedingly soft and tender crumb. This feature alone could have gotten me excited, but a markedly prominent sourdough flavor truly got my attention. The accompanying dipping oil loaded with garlic, olives, sundried tomatoes, and parsley tasted wonderful and served well later as pizza bone sauce.
The visually promising Margherita pie came out quickly and tasted even better than it looked. The pools of creamy buffalo mozzarella melted imperceptibly into the sauce in a 1:2 ratio and imparted a slightly sour tang. The Domenico Vitale tomatoes exploded in my mouth with an extremely fruity, balanced, and bright punch. The prominently flavorful olive oil acted both as a flavor amplifier that further pushed the fruity notes and as a unifying element that tied everything into umami heaven.
The perfectly charred crust knocked it out of the park.
The prominent sourdough tang truly makes this stand out. It combined so well with the other elements and brought the pie to a higher level of greatness. According to Kyle, the flavor comes solely from a starter—he uses dough made on the same day.
Furthermore, the pie had a uniquely crispy, paper-thin skin lining the bottom. The illustration below shows the clear line between the crisp and the doughy meat of the crust.
This feature may have to do with the 800°F cooking temperature, the two minute cooking time, and the presence of high-gluten flour in the dough. That said, I did have two quibbles—the cornicione was slightly undercooked in the middle, and the slices had major tip sag issues.
Overall, the ingredients combined to a perfectly balanced flavor that took this classic flavor combination to new heights. I would call this pizza the "anti-VPN" pizza since it doesn't adhere to that formula to get the job done so well. I do not hesitate to say that it has entered the pantheon of my all time favorite Margheritas.
The pizza alla carpettierre came with broccoli rabe and sausage atop the same tomato and cheese base. They blanched the broccoli rabe to temper its bitter edge. The juicy and fresh texture of the greens worked as a great counterpoint to the sausage. The sausage had a prominent fresh fennel flavor that highlighted the pork.
The second star of the night was this unnamed, unlisted special. It had a tomato base and a sparingly applied array of paper-thin green chili pepper slices, Pecorino Romano, bacon, oregano, and garlic slices.
Upon first bite, the spicy burn gave way to an eye-rollingly excellent unity of flavor. This pie was crafted with a clear respect and understanding of balance.
When Kyle joined the team at Queen Margherita, he elevated the overall state of pizza affairs at the restaurant. The owners have taken such a liking to him that they nicknamed him "Gennaro" since, they say, "9 out of 10 guys in Naples are named Gennaro." He has an interesting pedigree—he's worked in a 3 Michelin-starred restaurant in Europe and in vaunted New York locations like The Spotted Pig, Rose Water, and Motorino. The quality of the pies and respect for the ingredients clearly showed this level of experience and refinement.
When I asked why he decided to focus on pizza, he replied, "Since every day is so different, the challenge to consistently produce the best pie makes me come back." He is a self-taught pizza fanatic aided with professional discipline. At Queen Margherita, he has toiled to produce a dough optimized to match the homemade oven's quirks. This is truly a unique place for this reason, and Kyle's definitely a pizzaiolo to track for years to come.
Considering that the restaurant is BYOB and the pizzas range from $9.50 to $12.50, Queen Margherita offers the best pizza value I've had in a while. I'm usually hesitant to gush, but I truly feel like this place deserves it.