By Nick Solares and Adam Kuban | In opening a Neapolitan pizzeria in the U.S. these days, it's become de rigueur to import an oven from Naples, make a lot of noise about said oven, and enumerate your bona fides to the press. Perhaps no one in recent memory has gone as far as restaurateur Donatella Arpaia.
If you've been following Slice, you know that she didn't just import a prefab oven from Italy but hired one of Napoli's best oven-crafters, Stefano Ferrara, to assemble the raw materials on site. Supervising that work and the oven specs was none other than renowned third-generation pizza-maker and instructor Enzo Coccia of Naples's Pizzeria La Notizia. When the oven was finished and cured, Arpaia and staff followed Coccia back to Italy for an intensive three-month crash course in pizza-making.
All this was well and good and pointed toward a promising result, but as always, the proof is in the eating. While a three-month course is longer than those that many aspiring Neapolitan pizzaioli go through, we wondered if it would still be enough to impart the elements of an art that serious pizza-makers spend their lifetime perfecting.
Add to that the fact that, even though Ms. Arpaia herself went through the training, we suspect you're not going to see her at the make table day-in, day-out slinging pies. Would all the exactitude and expense translate into pizza bliss?
Nick Solares and I visited yesterday during lunch to find out. Nick, what do you say?—AK
I flipped over a slice of Donatella's pizza and what I saw underneath, emblazoned on the crust in a charred outline was a heart shape. It pretty much sums up how I feel about the pizza here: I love it.
That love affair could happily begin and end with the Margherita, the simplest and most elemental of the pies we tried but one that ultimately proved to be the most satisfying of the bunch.
The dough is supple, creamy and soft. It does have some crunch—a delicate crispness on the cornicione—and the bottom of the pies get a burnishing that resembles its ancient cousin, the naan bread, with a corresponding snap. But the pie is mostly floppy—not in a doughy, flabby way but in a wispy, light and airy manner. I have never had a pie so ethereally tender.
The toppings are also perfect: the sweet, vibrant San Marzanos in perfect proportion to the milky mozzarella that dots the surface in little pools. The cheese is heated just to the point of melting without weeping its water out. This is in fact one of the driest Neapolitan style pies that I have had.
The synergy is completed by the anointment of olive oil,which adds a slickness to the pie, the herbaceous notes from the basil and the saltiness from the dusting of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
If pizza is perfect food, this might just be the perfect pizza.
I should add here that neither Donatella herself nor her chef de cuisine, Jarett Appell, were making the pizzas when we visited yesterday, and they were still amazing.
I was less enraptured by the Enzo, named, obviously, for Mr. Coccia. The crust was as commendable as on the Margherita but the bitterness from the broccoli rabe and the overwhelming smokiness of the mozzarella dominated the palate, leaving little room for the sausage to register.
I am not generally a fan of roughage-strewn pizza, but I have to say that I quite liked the Donatella with its patchwork of sweet little tomatoes and stracciatella under a leafy canopy of arugula.
But the Capellacio was absolutely extraordinary. That perfect dough is topped with mozzarella and baked. As soon as it emerges from the oven it is covered in a thick layer of charred and marinated mushrooms (oyster mushrooms when we visited, but mushroom types may change based on availability) and a snowfall of Pecorino.
The mushrooms are so hearty and meaty that even the most ardent carnivore (me, for example) will not miss the lack of swine or bovine on this pie.
The pies at Donatellla are mostly inspired. And while they remain true to the Neapolitan model, they offer something a little different than the average pie of the breed. The pies are thinner, less puffy (but with no less life) and far drier. They will appeal, I think, not only to the purist but to those who did not think they cared for the form.
As it stands now, Donatella's serves up my favorite pizza in NYC. Let's hope they can maintain the standard — it is, after all, early days for the venture. But what a start. —NS
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