First we heard rumblings on eGullet. Then we got the first review from our favorite pizza blog, Slice NY. Next things got official when The New York Times, New York magazine, and the Village Voice weighed in, too.
They were all speaking of the East Village's newest pizzeria, Una Pizza Napoletana, a place whose owner, Anthony Mangieri, claimed, "[i]n my opinion, there's no good pizza" in New York. Given the hallowed history of New York pizza -- which includes
Coney IslandMidwood's DiFara's, DUMBO's Grimaldi's, and East Harlem's Patsy's--them's fightin' words, for sure.
Gothamist loves a good food fight, so we couldn't wait to see if the pizza measured up to the claims its owner was making. Whereas Slice NY called the pizza "stupendous," the Village Voice had been more circumspect in its praise, claiming that while Una Pizza Napoletana had perfect ingredients and intentions, it lacked flawless execution.
To help with comparisons (or maybe because we're just pizza gluttons), Gothamist and friends went to Grimaldi's the day before we went to Una Pizza Napoletana. We wanted the Grimaldi's pie fresh in our memory before tasting the competition.
As usual, Grimaldi's had the perfect combination of charred bits of crust, top-notch mozzarella in just the right proportions, and that basil-infused tomato sauce that tastes like stepping back in time to the heyday of New York-style pizza. At Grimaldi's, they use a coal-fired brick oven, which has always been the authentic New York pizza oven of choice.
When Italian immigrants brought pizza to NYC, they found that coal-fired brick ovens were cheaper and more readily available than the wood-fired brick ovens that are de rigeur in Naples, the birthplace of pizza. Those first immigrant pizza makers found a way to negotiate the high-heat ovens that had the coal in a separate compartment (unlike the wood-fired ovens that place the pizza just inches away from the licking flames) and New York-style pizza was born.
At Una Pizza Napoletana, the owner insisted on a custom-built wood-fired brick oven because he wanted to make pizza the original Neapolitan way, not the modified New York way. We wondered, however, if this difference of wood-fired vs. coal-fired oven would really make a difference in the flavor and texture of the pizza. The answer is both yes and no.
While there is a subtle distinction, the difference of coal vs. wood is much smaller than either coal-fired vs. gas oven or wood-fired vs. gas oven. Most run-of-the-mill pizzerias use gas-fired ovens that are simpler (and cheaper) to deal with; unfortunately, gas heat cannot create the extremely high heat necessary to produce old-school New York pizza or Neapolitan-style pizza.
So when we settled down at Una Pizza to taste both the margherita (standard tomato sauce and mozzarella style pizza) and the bianca (white pizza, made of cheese and no tomatoes) we found them to be extremely delicious and satisfying. From the quality of the buffalo mozzarella (shipped in from Italy) to the hand-made crust (always fresh, never frozen) to the prized San Marzano tomatoes used to make the sauce, we were impressed. We even noticed the added flavors of the sea salt and extra virgin olive oil that Mangieri fleetingly sprinkles over the prepped pie right before cooking it.
If forced to choose a winner, Gothamist would go with Una Pizza Napoletana. Those added touches of flavor were subtle but distinct in such a way that made the pizza transcend greatness and achieve some sort of Platonic Ideal. Now, whether the pizza always lives up to that, we cannot say--to find out, we'll just have to keep going back and eating more pizzas.
But we still love Grimaldi's and won't ever stop going there, either. Where else can you eat a pizza that Frank Sinatra would have loved, while staring at the many photos of him on the wall? Every day it seems there are fewer remainders from Old New York, and Grimaldi's is one of them that we're happy is still around.
Grimaldi's (Brooklyn Bridge location)
19 Old Fulton St. under the Brooklyn Bridge, (718) 858-4300
Hours: Sun.-Fri.: 11:30am to 10:45pm, Saturday: noon to 11:45pm
Una Pizza Napoletana
349 East 12th Street (between 1st & 2nd Ave.), (212) 477-9950
Hours: 5 p.m. until "out of fresh dough" Thursday through Saturday; Noon until "out of fresh dough" Sunday. Closed Monday through Wednesday.
Photo of Anthony Mangieri courtesy of Asbury Park Press.