Two legendary pizzaiolos, one 700-degree oven, dozens of pizzas, and 35 lucky diners: imagine the pizza feast that followed. Serious Eats founder and Pizza: A Slice of Heaven author Ed Levine and Slice founder Adam Kuban got these two major talents in the same kitchen (once Una Pizza Napoletana, now Motorino) to talk about the craft of pizza and then dish it out.
A pizza shop in a central Jersey strip mall doesn’t seem like a natural starting point for a celebrated chef, but that’s one leg of Anthony Mangieri’s unusual path to pizza stardom. Before Mathieu Palombino owned his own pizza place in Williamsburg, the French-trained chef rose up through the ranks in Laurent Tourondel’s restaurants. After the talk, both chefs got to work in the kitchen, dishing out dozens of pies until everyone was stuffed. A transcript of the talk and some delicious photos, after the jump.
Mangieri: Growing up in an Italian American family, a pretty middle-class to lower-income family, we really stuck to tradition and handmade foods. We didn’t really do it because it was popular. It was just what we ate. I remember a dear friend of mine came over once fro dinner—his mother was from Ireland. We had spaghetti with garlic and olive oil, and he didn’t even understand what it was, since he’d never seen spaghetti without tomato sauce.
Going to Italy with my family a lot when I was younger got me interested more in Naples and the culture. And I just little by little fell into it. Once I got out of high school I spent a lot of time cooking with my grandmother.
Levine: She baked bread.
Mangieri: She did bake bread, and that was really what got me going with it, and then I just became obsessed with it. I started reading a lot of books about it, and when I would go to Naples, I’d go in pizzerias every day, sometimes the same one several times in one day. But I was also shy, so I never talked to anybody. Not like nowadays where if you have a place like this, everyone that comes in wants you to teach them how you make pizza, where do you get the oven, and where’d you buy the flour. I’d never do that. I was too scared. I made my mother do that sometimes. But I would never do it.
Levine: And you opened a bread bakery before you were ever making pizza.
Mangieri: Yeah. It was a wood-burning oven. I used to make Neapolitan-inspired bread, and I did that for almost four years. Most people especially down there [in Central New Jersey] hadn’t understood that bread could have a dark crust or a hard crust, so it was tough. I really didn’t have any support. I had no money.
When I closed the bakery, I was pretty much going to give up and just get a job. My father used to work in Atlantic City, and I was going to get a job being a janitor or something. But I just felt like I had to give [making pizza] a try. I knew how to make pizza more or less, and I felt like I just had to do it so I would know it didn’t work, and if it didn’t, I could get on with my life and not always have this regret. So I found this really cheap spot next to a 7 Eleven.
I was doing exactly what I did here, except that I didn’t have a liquor license. Actually when I first opened down there, I only made margherita and marinara pizza, based on my love for Naples, Totonno’s on Coney Island, and John’s on Bleecker. These were places that I would go in to eat and I was like, in awe of it. I would feel nervous and sick to my stomach on the way there.
Levine: And did you ever stop and think to yourself, people expect pizza to have toppings?
Yeah, I definitely knew that people didn’t understand it, but I didn’t do it to make a stand. I was just doing it because I really love the pizza in Naples. I thought it was spectacular and there was nothing like it in America. It was really exotic and ethnic. Then when I started, I felt like it came easily to me.
But especially the first couple years, it was pretty tough. You know, being in a strip mall across from the ocean in New Jersey next to a 7 Eleven and a sports bar was probably not the best location for place serving only two kinds of pizza with no toppings.
Levine: I don’t know what Harvard MBA wrote that business plan.
Mangieri: I have this discussion with friends of mine who are more business-oriented and they’re always like, What’s the angle? And I’m like, I don’t think about that, I just think of doing something and if it’s a spot you can do it in. I don’t know. Somebody’ll come.
Levine: I think one of the things that you have in common with all the other great pizza makers I have met is that pizza is really, really important to you, but it’s not important to you as a business proposition. It’s actually important to you from an artistic and creative perspective.
Mangieri: Yeah, for sure. This is what I have to do for a living, and this is the way I’m wired. I love to make pizza, I care about it, I put every ounce of my soul into every one I make, and it’s stressful. Certainly you can make a better living if you’re more open to a business way of thinking. You definitely can do something great and make money. I’ve made pretty decent money here, so I can’t complain. If you don’t think [with a business mindset] you limit yourself to growth and opportunities that come your way, but what can you do? You’re either one way or another.
Levine: It seems like the pizza makers across the country like you sort of find one another. When I talk to every one of you, you really do live and die by every pie.
Mangieri: It’s a really difficult thing to make and not to be 100 percent focused on it, because the dough is constantly changing throughout the day, the oven temperature is constantly changing throughout the day. It’s a constant evolution, so without that kind of focus, you really can’t be at a high level.
Levine: I once walked into this place two or three years ago with a couple of food writer friends of mine who were in from out of town. It happened to be an unusually hot and humid day in September or October. And I walked in and I said, Hey Anthony, I got some friends here from out of town, can we just buy a couple of pizzas? And he said, No! And I said, you know these guys are food writers, it’s good for you to, you know, serve them pizzas. And he said, No, I hate the pizzas that are coming out of the oven today, and if I had any guts and if I could afford to, I would close.
Palombino: I’ve done French cuisine from the beginning. I went to cooking school for two years, not too good. Cooking school is very strict in Europe. They force you to wear a suit to school. But it wasn’t going fast enough. I got an apprenticeship in Tourné, then after four years I moved to Brussels to a more international kitchen, where there were Americans, Japanese, Spanish, Italians. This was where I realized that I wanted to travel. I had plans to go to Asia and everywhere, but New York ended up being my final destination, for now.
I really came with nothing, but it was cool. I started working a lot in French restaurants for the first two years, sleeping in every motel and YMCA and couch around. It was the time of my life. Being broken in New York, being 20, and making cash money, it’s a great thing.
I continued with French cuisine for a while, until I felt like I had to separate from my mentor Laurent Tourondel. He’s a dear friend and the only attachment I have here other than my wife and son. I decided to forget about French cuisine for a while, because French cuisine is not a realistic thing in New York. It’s very expensive, very fashionable, and very difficult.
Levine: To open a French restaurant in New York is very expensive.
Palombino: Yeah, and the 1990s were an era where people were interested in eating new things more than good things. People were looking for the new. In the first three or four years I was here, I was forced to cook new things everyday. Coming up with an appetizer special, a main course special and a dessert special five times a week is very challenging. And that forced me to make mistakes many times, whether it was at BLT or with Bouley. I was not purely happy. It was time for me to do something on my own.
French restaurants seemed to be the next thing to do, but non. I wanted something much more down to earth that people would appreciate. And there was Anthony, who I didn’t like, because I thought he stole my idea. But he was actually there for a long time. He was actually my inspiration. I came to eat here a couple times. An unlike me until a couple months ago, he was doing something real. He wasn’t having pizza appetizer in his menu. He had three things but he was doing it right. He was making no mistakes. Nobody could say nothing to him. Whether you like him or not, there was that. I liked him.
Levine: I came into [Una Pizza Napoletana] once, and I said to Anthony, you know, there’s a lot of chatter on the internet about you not serving water. And then I realized the first thing that enabled you to start serving pizza was how you thought about things. You didn’t think, “This is going to be a public relations disaster!”
Mangieri: I only had tables that sat four people, because that’s what I did in New Jersey and no one ever complained. I didn’t know that there was like a technique that you could have two-seaters. People would be really, really upset with me that I only had four-seater. They would come in and start arguing with someone else about it. There were all these little things I had to learn to deal with people.
Levine: I think you ultimately inspired someone like Mathieu not because you didn’t have two-tops but because your approach to pizza was something other people wanted to emulate. Eaters and cooks.
Palombino: He had a point: he was putting his focus into the right direction. I knew then that this was not going to be easy. Making a good pizza is easy. Making an extremely good pizza is very difficult. You have to have an obsession. You have to make it at a degree that gets you going further than those who care less. And it shows.
This is a thing that’s common with chefs. Everybody that is very talented that I’ve met, you go overboard, and you get obsessed with it. I modify the dough at night when I sleep. I keep thinking about it. I make progress. I’m on the bridge, I’m driving, I’m walking, I’m waiting for something, I’m always thinking about it. But you realize that makes a difference.
Levine brought in pizza from a couple other NYC standards to feed us while the chefs talked.
The first slice was from Totonno’s and reminded me the most of New Haven style pizza – crispy crust, quality ingredients, no frills.
Next up was a slice from Pizza Supremo on 31st, which Levine characterized as a “fast food-style slice with a sweet sauce. They put sugar in it, though the guy still won’t admit that to me.”
An appetizer of charred octopus in red with, peppery olives, tomatoes, and fresh rosemary.
The feast really began when Palombino and Mangieri got to work in the kitchen, quickly turning out their own pizzas. The margherita was sublime, with mozzarella that had a tang that let you know it was mozzarella di bufala. We could see in the kitchen that Palombino was drizzling the basil leaves with oil to keep them from catching fire in the scorching hot oven. He piled on the mozzarella in large diced chunks. Despite the char you can see on the crust, it didn’t taste burned, just flavorful.
Palombino and Mangieri at work together in the kitchen.
This soppressata picante pizza of Motorino’s was my favorite. The oil from the thinly sliced soppressata had spread through the sauce, and the red chiles gave it a nice bit of heat, which was countered by the milky cheese.
Una Pizza Napoletana’s classic filetti pizza, with redonculous amounts of fabulous cheese, flavored with garlic, olive oil, basil and cherry tomatoes. Gregg, another pizza fan at my table, ranked this one as his favorite, while his brother Jeff from Philly called it a tie between the last two.
We finished off the meal with soft-serve ice cream.
Palombino spruced up the interior a bit when he acquired the place, putting in better lighting, striped wallpaper, and those desired two-tops.
Motorino, nee Una Pizza Napoletana, on East 12th Street.
349 East 12th Street, between First and Second Avenues
New York, NY
319 Graham Avenue at Devoe Street
Anthony Mangieri is reopening Una Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco in SoMa in March 2010. One reason he’s leaving NYC? He misses the great outdoors. In San Fran, he’s looking forward to mountain biking, kayaking, and using fresh local ingredients from Napa and the Bay Area.