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Nicoletta: What Michael White is Really After

[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Some regular Slice-reading New Yorkers might be wondering why a national pizza blog with a strong New York bent has been completely mum on the pies at Nicoletta, the new pizza venture from über-Chef Michael White who happens to be one of the greatest (not to mention one of our favorite) Italian chefs in the city. And you'd be right to wonder. Other than a brief First Look, we've been silent on the subject.

Honestly, it was the initial negative press culiminating in Pete Wells' zero-star review in the New York Times that made us give pause and consider the matter. I mean, what is Michael White doing serving heavy, midwestern pizza with a sauce made with dried herbs and low moisture Wisconsin mozzarella?

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At Slice we're a pretty democratic, knowledgable bunch of pizza lovers. We New York reviewers (that'd be Slice founder Adam, Overlord Ed, and Chief Creative Officer Kenji) like most kinds of pizza if it's made with love and care and passion and knowledge. (Well, deep dish might be the exception.)

As a pizza blog, rendering our opinion on whether the pizza is "good" or not is simple. Getting to the bottom of exactly why the pizza is the way it is and understanding it took a few more visits, some lengthy conversations both amongst ourselves and with chef White, and a lot of thought. We've tasted his pizza in all stages of development, so nobody can accuse us of not being thorough.

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After a few initial visits, we all ended up coming back with the same reaction, which was largely, "I don't get it." I mean, the pizza is not bad, in the same way that any sauce and cheese-covered bread-like-object is going to be innately tasty to some degree, but in the end it's a style of pizza—moderately thick, very crunchy, extremely heavy handed with the admittedly high quality toppings—without time or place. Chef White refers to it as "midwestern pizza," a taste memory of his Wisconsin childhood, but honestly, it's a style of pizza you'll find in college towns, truck stops, and ski lodges anywhere in the country.

It's the kind of pizza that pizza chains all aspire to produce. (It's no surprise that every last one of them from Pizza Hut to Domino's, from Little Caesar to Papa John's, originated in the midwest).

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So when talking about whether Nicoletta's pizza is good or not, there are two angles you could approach the question from: There's the cheffy angle, then there's the pizza chain angle.

The chef angle is where most reviewers seem to be weighing in. This is The Michael White, after all. The man who creates the finest pasta in the city. The genius with 15 New York Times stars pinned to his whites. Who gives him the right to produce anything other than cheffy, artisinal pizza?

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Bones

The thing with pizza is that in order to be extraordinary, we expect the pie-man to be in there making dough every night. Running a pizzeria is not like running a normal kitchen, which is why many of the great pizzerias in the world are run by lifetime pizza obsessives, not chefs looking for the next new concept.

One night, as we finished our meal, fighting over the last spoonfuls of soft-serve (which are insanely serious indeed), we had paid our check and were about to leave, when Michael White pulls up a chair to our table. He really wanted to know what we thought of his pizza. "Don't worry, he said, 'I have a thick skin. But it's not kevlar, so I do bleed."

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After we expressed our genuine confusion at what he was trying to do; the mental split we found between the Michael White we knew and the Michael White of Nicoletta, he responded: "I don't want to compete with Motorino, Kesté, any of those guys. Are you kidding me? I'd have to be back in that kitchen every single night making the dough and baking the pies myself if I wanted to be in the same league as them. That's not for me, and that's not what we're trying to do here."

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You heard it, folks, White himself admitting that his pizza is not at the level of the greats in the city. What he did say, however, was this: "I'm not reinventing the wheel here, I'm just trying to introduce the pizza of my youth, the pizza I love and the pizza many midwesterners love, to New Yorkers. It's literally carbon-copy. Yeah, we're doing things like using a biga and a three day ferment on our dough, we're using the best ingredients you can buy, but the pizza itself is straight up midwestern pizza."

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Hole structure

What about that sauce? That dry-herb, cooked tomato sauce? "I make that sauce with straight up commodity crushed tomatoes from a can and a dried herbs, about 30 grams per half dozen 40 ounce cans. It's not for everyone, but that's the way the sauce is, so that's the way I kept it." If there was one element we would have changed on the pizza, it would have been that sauce, yet if the filled tables around us were any indication, most folks didn't mind it.

White's goal is to expand the operation into at least 40 locations; he's already talking about a second location in Jersey. Nicoletta is not a high-end cheffy pizzeria, it's the starting point for a chain of pizzerias. From the perspective of someone who sees him as a great chef whose obligation is to advance the craft and strive for perfection, that seems like an odd choice. But from the perspective of a man who already has 15 New York Times and 9 Michelin stars under his belt, he's got nothing to prove, why not try to design a franchisable concept?

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Underbelly

From this perspective, it makes a lot of sense. The pies themselves take no great skill to make—indeed, up until recently the dough was being rolled out by a sheeter, though White has recently switched to hand-shaping. The thick, dense dough doesn't require a gentle touch, the knock-you-over-the-head ingredients are about getting punched in the tongue more than any sort of refinement or delicacy. The pies are crazy filling (we never managed to finish more than half a pie during any one meal), and the prices are reasonable. With a large group, you could be in and out all-in for around $20 to $30 per person, drinks and appetizers included.

And that's what this is all about. Really, the question we should be asking is not "how does this compare to high end New York pizzerias?" but "how does this compare to chain pizzerias and is there room for it in the market?"

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The answer is extremely favorably. I can imagine a world in which rather than stopping for a fast food burger I could pull into one of the Little Nicolettas (Nicolettettas?) that dot highway-sides and rest areas across the East Coast. Rather than Domino's being the best option for suburban delivery, I'd call in for one of the tasty Calabrese pies with thick-cut curls of crisp pepperoni and homemade sausage. Instead of an overdressed, limp-leafed Caesar salad, I'd get a bowl of bitter greens and crisp green beans with goat cheese toast. Not a bad trade off, I'd say.

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Pepperoni cups

In the end, the answer to "Is it great pizza?" is definitely no, but the thing is that Michael White would be the first to admit it. He wasn't after great, he's was after filling, fun, and above all, easily reproducible. At these goals, he succeeded.

Click through the slideshow for details on some of the dishes.

Ed Levine and J. Kenji López-Alt

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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