Michael White's forthcoming pizzeria Nicoletta is hands-down the most anticipated pizza opening of the year. With just about three weeks left to go, White is now tweaking the menu, and figuring out all the little service and design details. Eater recently chatted with White about the creative process behind building a pizzeria, and what we can expect from Nicoletta when it's up and running.
When was the first time you thought about opening a pizza restaurant? Michael White: Pizza is definitely one of the stamps of the Italian kitchen, and we have so much unbelievable pizza in New York City. So, it was probably the last piece of the puzzle that I wanted to do. But the minute you go outside of the United States, pizza is thought of as the Italian food — it's what people know. Even if you are in Hong Kong, pizza is everywhere. You know, I started working in a pizzeria years ago, when I was a short stop. And I just loved being in the kitchen — the camaraderie and all of that stuff.
Was that your first kitchen job? Definitely. I was like 14 or 15 years old, and I was just hanging out. Obviously not for pay, but I was working in a place called Domenico's Pizza Restaurant. But I always wanted to do pizza — it's a necessary thing. Who doesn't like pizza? When I first started doing pizza in Hong Kong, I really got the bug, and it was reminiscent of my work as a young person. So I thought, "Wow, I need to find a location where I can do that pizza." It's as simple as that.
Is there one Italian or American pizzeria that is an influence? Or is it your own version? There is Neapolitan-style, New York Neapolitan, and the New York pizza slice. Of the three pizzas I just mentioned, the first one is made with Double Zero flour and a tremendous amount of water — probably 70 percent water. So, therefore, when you put it into an oven that is 900 degrees, that moisture cooks out of it very, very quickly, and you get that blistering on the top. Neapolitan pizza is fantastic to eat immediately when it comes out of the oven, with all those perfect burns and crisps. But, as I'm sure you know, that pizza doesn't travel well. And there is that wet area in the middle of the dough, and when you get it home, it's really not...it just doesn't travel well.
And there is no reason for me to make a New York Neapolitan pizza. When I say "New York Neapolitan," I am talking about that fabulous pizza at Lombardi's that is cooked in a coal oven but is not made with Double Zero flour. It is made with a high protein red wheat flour that you find in the middle of the United States — from like South Dakota, North Dakota, and Kansas. That is what one would call the "utility slice," or that pizza where you have to take your index finger, your middle finger, and your thumb, and kind of do the pinch so that it doesn't sag and fall.
And I would say, basically, probably 80 percent of the people that eat pizza in New York are eating pizzas that have been reheated. You know, because when you walk into a pizzeria, they throw it into the oven. So, it's a reheated pizza. But you don't think about it like that — that you are actually eating reheated pizza.
So, it sounds like you're trying to engineer a pizza that will taste great in a restaurant, or when you reheat it the next day? Is that the story? You got it! We are applying method and technique to what we do. The Midwestern type of pizza that I grew up with is "sheeted." You don't do it by hand. You press it out through a dough roller — a sheeter — and what happens is all those air pockets get squished out so it's just dough. Very pressed out. Then what you do is put tomato sauce down and then you put Italian sausage down. In New York City, they cook ring sausage whole. Then they let it chill, slice it, and put it on top of a pizza. But all the essential fatty oils and all the things that are in the sausage are left on the sheet tray and never make it to your pizza. So we are making sausage with wild fennel, black pepper, and chili flakes — very aggressive sausage — from heritage breed pigs. We are going to be applying the sauce first then the sausage, so that the sausage cooks on the pizza and the fat oozes out onto the pizza dough and the sauce. Then you cover it with cheese and whatever you want on top of it.
Are you going to be doing any sausage work or charcuterie stuff on site? Or at another one of your restaurants, like Osteria Morini? Well hopefully, one day we will have a centrally located commissary, if you will. But you know, making sausage really is not that difficult. If you have a grinder, you can do it very well. You're not putting it into a casing either, and you make it in small batches. It's like grating cheese — you do it in small batches because it loses so much of its perfume otherwise.
What type of oven are you using here? It's going to be a gas oven, but it is fully brick lined. It will have a 2.5 inch deck of refractory brick, but on the inside, it's all arched.
Aside from pizza is there going to be salads or charcuterie? Definitely salads. We are working out all those types of things now. We will not basically do charcuterie, but we will do a beautiful prosciutto plate with roasted peppers. And we will do starters — the kind of food you want to eat prior to having pizza.
What are you going to serve to drink? We have a beer and wine license, so no hard alcohol. But Lakefront Brewery in Wisconsin is brewing beer for Morini. I just tasted some stouts the other day and some different things. Beer and pizza go together hand in hand. It will be very beer focused, but we will have wine on tap, also. We will also have five to six selections of red and white at any time. We want to give value to the customer. I would rather not write a fixed menu. A fantastic wine that someone has tasted that may not be ready Marea or Ai Fiori would be a fantastic choice for a pizzeria. So, there will be lots of good esoteric wines, ever-rotating. I think we are going to keep it at a lower price point. From the very top to the very bottom, it's for everyone. And we are very close to New York University and the campus, and I want to see people out in the street eating pizza — loitering!
Do you know the delivery zone yet? We are starting with a very small delivery zone because I want to perfect it first. We have a lot of firepower, you know, with the ovens. But I definitely want to work it out first. We were talking about it yesterday, but you have to give us a couple of months. But we will get right into it. Hopefully we will get into the kitchen before the end of the month, and hopefully we will open sometime in the first week of June. We are hoping for the first week of June, but nothing is set in stone.
· All Coverage of Nicoletta [~ENY~]