Ribalta: Neo-Neapolitan in Union Square
48 East12th Street (b/n University Place & Broadway; map), New York, NY 10003; 212-777-7781; ribaltapizzarestaurant.com
Service: Friendly and Italian, in a good way
Setting: High-ceilinged airy space with red leather trim and some knick-nacks
Must-Haves: DOC pizza, Brussels sprouts, pizza in pala
Cost: Appetizers $7 to $14, pastas $14 to $20, pizza $9 to $23
Compare To: Motorino, Don Antonio, Keste
Recommendation: Good for the neighborhood. Simple pies are excellent, but not all toppings and sides deliver.
A couple of months ago, I received an e-mail from Rosario Procino, former partner of Neapolitan guru Roberto Caporosco. Rosario was the charming, always smiling business person, or what might be called the Bizzaiolo, at Keste.
Rosasio recently joined the team that runs Ribalta in Union Square with the goal of "leveraging the existing strengths but also elevating the overall experience. The idea," he said, with a paranthetical admission that it's a big one, "is to build a dream team of Neapolitan Pizza." To that end, he hired Pasquale Cozzolino to make the pies, drawing on his recent experience as chef at PizzArte and Dellarocco's. "This may be the only pizzeria in New York run (front and back of house) by Neapolitan-born and-raised individuals."
His goal is to balance tradition and creativity. Pizzas are leavened by a natural starter that Pasquale brought back from Italy—it's somewhere between 80 and 100 years old, and over the course of a five to seven day rise, it brings a noticeable lightness and cultured flavor to the dough. But unlike certain Neapolitan pizzerias that take a monastic approach to the One and Only pie, Ribalta plays around with tradition—just ask the hot dog and fries pizza or the limoncello-marinated chicken wings.
The result is part of the new wave of Neapolitan pizzerias we've seen in New York—those that embrace traditional techniques, but aren't constrained by them. Ribalta has been light on buzz, so we paid a visit to see if Rosario and Pasquale's pizza could match their story.
Ribalta is a vast space with white-tiled walls, red leather trim, and pizza-centric photos facing down at you from the ceiling. They have many ovens, including one that will be devoted exclusively to gluten-free pizza, but curiously none that are exclusively wood-burning.
The extensive menu includes many starters, pastas, and salads, but we focused on the equally extensive pizza menu, though not exclusively.
We ordered two starters, Brussels Sprouts ($8) studded with pancetta and Pecorino and crowded into an oblong terra cotta roasting pan, which were seriously delicious, a satisfying combination of thoroughly cooked but not mushy sprouts and crunchy pancetta cubes. We'd order it again today. There was also a straight-from-the-fridge watermelon, plum tomato, and burrata salad ($14), which we'd steer clear from forever unless they fixed the potato-like plum tomatoes (it's September in New York, one of the two great tomato months of the year) and cold-as-late-November cheese.
The DOC ($15), always a litmus test pie, was terrific: the Italian starter combined with 00 flour and New York water, cooked in a gas oven with wood accents, made for a yeasty, low-lipped pie that was simultaneously light and chewy, with a lovely crispy exterior and just the right hint of sourness. The low lip and the lack of excessive oil in the middle of pie made it post-Neapolitan, Neapolitan-inspired or -derived, rather than exactingly traditional.
Our white pie with sausage and broccoli rabe ($17) was not as successful: too much fior di latte and unseasoned sausage pellets that, at the very least, need salt and fennel seeds to come to life.
Ribalta's menu has a section for pizza in pala, twice-baked pizzas "for two" (or more), which explains the $28 price tag. They're the Italian designer version of a Sicilian pizza, but made with less oil in the crust and mercifully less cheese. The crust was lighter than it looks, with decent hole structure, and our server announced that these suckers were so big you could split your topping order, which we did. The Norma half featured eggplant, cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, and Parmesan, all well-cooked—this is the half I'd order again. Our other half featured pancetta and mushrooms; the once-cooked pork should have been cooked twice.
As for that hot dog and fries pizza? We've saved it for another visit.
For dessert, we had something that was a cross between bombolini, mini-crullers without the twist, and churros, doughnuts ($9) that were moistened and lightened by adding potato starch to the dough. They were topped with Nutella, which is what just about every Italian dessert in a pizzeria is topped with. Some people are Nutella lovers. I am not, though if Ribalta used one of the expensive chocolate hazelnut spreads made both in the U.S. and Naples, I would have been very happy. The doughnuts themselves, coated with just the right amount of sugar, were excellent.
Ribalta is a work in progress. Order the brussels sprouts, the DOC, and, if you have a large party or want to take a lot of pizza home, a pizza in pala, and the doughnuts for dessert—you will be very happy Neo-Neapolitan campers. The menu items that needed work seem eminently fixable, and we look forward to going back in a month or two to see if they will be.