No Sleep 'til Naples
When Anthony Mangieri closed Una Pizza Napoletana last year it was a loss for lovers of Neapolitan pizza. No one was more passionate--some would say militant--about their pizza than Mangieri, and I don't think anyone produced a more authentic Neapolitan pizza outside Naples. But as much as a labor of love as it was, I often wondered how sustainable Una was in the long run. It was all down to Mangieri himself, since he was the only one who could make the dough up to his standards. Clearly a perfectionist, the psychological toll of having to constantly live up to these standards, not to mention dealing with the hype and complaints about the lack of toppings and price, must have been trying. I was not surprised when he announced he was packing up and moving to San Francisco. This would be great for California, but it would make his pizzas about as far from New York City as Naples.
Fortunately for the Neapolitan aficionado, Motorino took over Una's space on East 12th Street, complete with the oven that Mangiieri imported from Naples, and has proved itself a worthy successor. What it might lack in absolute authenticity, at least compared to its predecessor, it makes up for by offering a more universally appealing vision of pizza—you can get toppings here, and if you want your pie well done, that's not a problem, either.
I don't like my pies well done. In fact I love the wet, soft pies of Naples, and I am happy to report that Motorino can deliver such a pizza. Ask for it "soft" and the pizza will still have the char that is so much a part of the wood fired pizza experience, but it will have a soft inner core that adds a distinct textural and flavor element not found in other styles.
I am not telling you how to eat your pizza—that is a personal choice—but if you've never been to Naples, a soft pie at Motorino might just save you a trip if you end up not liking it. On the other hand, you might just love it, as I do, virtually guaranteeing that you will want to make the journey. But even if you don't end up visiting Naples, the pies at Motorino will get you most of the way there. They are that good.
The Making of a Margherita
The pizzaiolo takes a preformed ball of dough and vigorously but carefully forms it in to a flat disk. It is important not to rupture the "skin" of the dough during this process as it will not allow the crust to properly form. The dough is actually a balloon of sorts—put a ball of it into the pizza oven and it will puff up into a sphere. It is only when toppings are applied that the crust stays flat, except around the edges, which will rise up creating an airy, charred wall (known as the cornicione) surrounding the toppings.
A sparing amount of sauce is spread over the dough.
Small hunks of imported buffalo mozzarella are dispersed over the pie followed by fresh basil, sea salt, and an anointment of olive oil.
The pie is gently pulled on to a peel...
...and thrust in to the oven.
While the pies I saw being made in Naples spent no more than 90 seconds in the oven, the pies at Motorino seem to take a bit longer, around two minutes for a soft pie, a little more for well-done.
Because the burning wood occupies one side of the oven pies need to be rotated to ensure even cooking. This is accomplished using a metal peel with a small head to better allow the pizziaiolo to expose the bottom of the crust to the direct heat, which chars and mottles the exterior of the crust.
The pies emerge from the oven in mere minutes, steam billowing off them. They are quickly plated and cut in to quarter slices. I prefer that my pizza uncut, and Motorino will honor the request. This is especially important if you order your pies on the wet side; the molten toppings need to congeal a little before slicing so they don't seep underneath the crust. In Naples the pies are generally served uncut.
The crisp, blistered outer crust gives way to an airy inner core. The cornicione rises up like the innertube of a bicycle tire. It is almost as resilient: Push it down with your finger, and it will slowly reinflate, a faint dimple the only evidence that it was ever compressed.
I love the way the center of the pie crust gets creamy and, when blended with the sauce and cheese, takes on an amorphous quality. The cheese imparts a subtle tang that balances the sweetness and acidity of the vibrant sauce. Spiked with basil and salt, the flavors are clean and distinct yet also meld to create something greater than the sum of it parts.
I have eaten all the pies on the Motorino menu and perhaps I will cover them at a later date but for this review I chose to confine my coverage to most "authentic" pies, those that are widely available in Naples and considered the most authentic there.
The sleeper hit on the menu might just be the simplest and least assuming pie—the Marinara. And at only $9 it is a bona fide bargain.
I can pay the Filetti ($16) no greater compliment than to say that it reminded me of the pizza I ate at Pizzeria Trianon The only difference is that Trianon uses basil rather than the thyme found on the Motorino pie. I was worried that when I ordered my pie soft the cherry tomatoes would not be completely cooked. I needn't have worried, they were cooked perfectly—bursting in the mouth and imparting a pleasing sweetness.
Do I miss Una Pizza? Of course. I miss Naples as well. That Motorino is perhaps a half step behind both in absolute terms is inconsequential. It serves pizza, in New York City, that is as close an approximation of what I enjoy in Naples. At the time of writing Motorino is my favorite pizza in New York.
349 East 12th Street, NY NY 10003