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One of the ways people pretend to be sophisticated about restaurants these days is by claiming that the New York City dining scene has lost its edge. The sheer number of restaurants in the city — about 27,000, according to the health inspectors — makes the argument absurd. How many of them are slipping? All of them? Just the first 20,000 or so?
In reality, people who gripe about the state of New York restaurants are usually talking about a sliver of a slice of a fraction, probably around 50 places whose names are in steady circulation, with the newest weighing most heavily in the results.
The number of really good ones is higher than anyone can count. Places that other cities would brag about get lost in the crowd here. The chef Günther Seeger, for instance, was a national star when he cooked in Atlanta. The tasting-menu restaurant he opened in the West Village three years ago should have been a major destination, especially after he dropped the prices. Mr. Seeger can make ingredients bend to his will almost without touching them. His cooking outshone that of some of the city’s more famous chefs, who whip their ingredients harder with far less payoff.
Yet he struggled to put Günther Seeger NY on the map. I reviewed it, but some other critics didn’t, and by the time it closed, last month, Chris Crowley of Grub Street wrote, “it wasn’t a restaurant you heard a lot of food geeks talk about.” Mr. Seeger complained to one acquaintance that he couldn’t even get on a list of New York’s 100 best restaurants.
Of course, good restaurants fail everywhere, but it’s hard to imagine Mr. Seeger vanishing into the crowd in San Francisco, Chicago or Los Angeles. Considered and rejected, maybe. But overlooked? Not likely.
I’m not sure that any words of mine could have persuaded the city to cuddle up to Mr. Seeger, who isn’t particularly cuddly. But I wish I’d found ways to remind New Yorkers that his breathtakingly pure cooking was there to be enjoyed while that was still true.
Which brings us, by a circuitous and not particularly well-paved route, to Anthony Mangieri of Una Pizza Napoletana. Using naturally leavened dough and a short shopping list of ingredients, Mr. Mangieri makes what is unmistakably the finest sit-down pizza in the five boroughs. (I doubt he has any rivals in the stand-up joints, either, but slice pizza is a different game.
Two years ago, I posited that Razza, a pizzeria in Jersey City, made “the best pizza in New York.” I don’t regret writing that, but I would like to point out that Mr. Mangieri was not cooking in the city at the time and that Razza’s chef, Dan Richer, has said that he began taking pizza seriously only after he met Mr. Mangieri.
Una Pizza Napoletana saw a rush of curious pie-eaters after it opened on Orchard Street a little more than a year ago. But the last few times I’ve gone, there were too many unclaimed chairs and bar stools. When Anthony Mangieri is making pizza, the right number of empty seats is zero, as any New Yorker who waited in line at the old Una Pizza Napoletana, in the East Village from 2004 to 2009, could tell you. Press interest in the new place has died down, too.
So when I heard a rumor that Mr. Mangieri was thinking of leaving the city and taking his pizza with him, I was unnerved, to put it mildly. Asked about it, he told me he was considering it but hadn’t made up his mind. Mr. Mangieri has left New York before, and I didn’t like it then, either. This time, I wasn’t going to let him get away without a fight.
It is true that my review of Una Pizza Napoletana last year was decidedly mixed. It is also true, though, that almost every criticism I made has been addressed. It has gone from one of the most confounding pizzerias in the city to one of the most enjoyable.
The problem with Una Pizza a year ago was that it was trying to be two things at once. It was, of course, a Neapolitan pizzeria, serving classic, unadorned pies baked for about two minutes inside a wood-burning oven shaped like an igloo. But it was also a cutting-edge Lower East Side experiment.
At the instigation of Mr. Mangieri’s partners, the chefs Fabian von Hauske Valtierra and Jeremiah Stone, the kitchen brought forth appetizers that had rarely if ever been asked to live under one roof with a pizza. There was a jellylike mass of raw lobster inside a ring of chickpeas, and a rust-colored puddle of ’nduja under raw turnips and nasturtium leaves. The wine list was virtually a treatise on natural wines, a long document full of the names of eccentric producers and obscure European villages.
In another restaurant, all this would have been the departure point for some adventurous evenings. But in a pizzeria it led to some peculiar pairings, made the check a bit higher than you wanted and resulted in long waits before you were finally allowed to eat the delicious pizza you’d come for.
Over the past year, Mr. von Hauske and Mr. Stone have stepped aside, letting Mr. Mangieri call the shots. The wines on offer now number about 15. They are still a likably eccentric lot, but picking one doesn’t feel like studying for a master sommelier exam. The appetizers are simpler and less expensive: a plate of marinated white anchovies, a dish of warm Italian olives or a bowl of Little Gem lettuce with sunflower seeds in a Caesarish dressing. I do miss the tiramisù from the opening menu, but the new cannoli filled with ricotta — a blend of domestic cow’s milk and Italian sheep’s milk — are nearly as good.
It’s common for a new restaurant to trim its sails, but this one has trimmed its prices, too. In the beginning the five regular pizzas were all $25; now they range from $19 to $25, and the two extra-complicated Friday and Saturday pizzas are priced at $26.
I liked Mr. Mangieri’s pies in the East Village, I liked them more when he came back to town, and it’s possible, just possible, that they’ve improved over the past year. He is, like Mr. Seeger, a minimalist. He lets you notice each ingredient: the little ping of sourness in the Campanian buffalo mozzarella, for instance. Or the unruly, windswept-hillside aroma of dried Sicilian oregano. The precise crunch of each unrefined Trapani sea-salt crystal waiting to dissolve.
The crust is so tender it barely fights fork, knife or teeth. Some diners will wish it put up more crackly resistance. You inhale it at least as much as you eat it. When you have finished, some of the most popular pizzas in town will seem tough, leathery, overworked. Even if this is not the style you crave, you’ll know that it’s the work of a baker who has spent years listening to the dough. There is a place for people who are as obsessed with pizza as Mr. Mangieri, and the place is New York City.
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