Few openings in recent history have excited as much attention and speculation as Marta, Danny Meyer and Nick Anderer's new pizza-themed restaurant. It could not be located in a more auspicious neighborhood. Like the Breslin, it is situated off the lobby of what was once a broken-down hotel in the Wholesale District, in this case the Martha Washington. 10 years ago, the place would have been accounted almost a flophouse; now business travelers and well-heeled tourists wheel their bags proudly up to a check-in counter that, if it weren't for the construction debris still to be seen here and there, might almost be counted luxurious.
Marta — the name seems as if someone had grabbed the first First Lady's arm while she was writing out her name — occupies a broad, high-ceilinged room with tables hidden here and there among statuesque pillars. Strange angular light fixtures, each ending in a single bare bulb, hang from the ceiling; there's a small oval bar with perhaps 10 stools, behind which shelves gleam with backlit bottles ranged way too high for the bartender to reach. Apart from a few clay amphorae and a potted tree here and there, the entire effect of the room is one of intentional under-decoration. Nothing pins the decor to any particular place or time.
A demi-wall separates the tables from a white eating counter that looks at two massive, wood-fired beehive pizza ovens faced with black ceramic tile. To the left of the ovens find a pair of wood-fired grills like some steam punk's fantasy. Masses of employees shoot back and forth among the cooking devices in a display of apparent kitchen efficiency. In fact, the entire place is massively staffed, and the staff is well organized.
The place claims to be serving Roman pizza, but what is that? In this case, the pies are round, with crusts like crackers. If you feel a sense of déjà vu, perhaps it's because similar pies have been made at Mario Batali's Otto since 2003. Indeed, the essence of true Roman pizza is that there is no essence — as a capital city, pies are made in multiple styles, from thick-crust to thin crust. Many are sold bakery-style by the kilogram and vended at room temperature. They tend to be wrapped in butcher paper, taken elsewhere to eat, intended purely for sustenance. That doesn't mean they're not good, but no fetish value is attached to them. Foodies don't go to Rome to seek out the pizza.
But before we get to Marta's pies, let's start with the other stuff on a menu that offers six sections, not including dessert. From the fryers come a choice of five dishes, including Sicilian-style potato croquettes, a classic seafood fritto misto, and the dish a companion and I chose due to its nonsensicalness. Polpettine di maccheroni ($8) is a pair of pasta balls deep-fried and deposited in tomato sauce, intended to resemble meatballs. The dish was a noble failure, a pasta course masquerading as antipasto. Luckily, as our next selection along hopped a trio of pale rabbit meatballs ($12), having issued from one of the wood-burning ovens and deposited in a dark and chunky tomato sauce improved with little hillocks of ricotta. The balls had been almost blackened, which made up for the paleness of the bunny flesh.
After being confronted with so many balls, the octopus salad ($14) came as a relief, though the fresh favas cooked to complete softness outshone the tentacles themselves. After our pizzas, my companion and I thoroughly enjoyed a beer-brined chicken ($24), the voluptuous half-bird tender but not too tender, the skin picturesquely blackened but still intact. A small wooden bowl of sea salt at our elbow added extra oomph to the bird.
[Fiori di zucca]
And the pizzas? They were quite accomplished in their own way, our margherita ($12) puddled with wonderful buffalo mozzarella and a plainish tomato sauce that shone bright red like a beacon. But a bit strange to see this quintessential Neapolitan topping combination reproduced perfectly on what amounts to a lo-cal cracker. And no one is going to fold a slice, New York style. Our other pie came from a subsection that features tomato-less pizzas. Called firori di zucca ($16), this pie was equally delish, scattered with yellow and green summer squashes, and here's the kicker: a few strips of anchovy knocked this pie into orbit.
[patate alla gricia]
Though we had confined ourselves to two pies from a menu of nine, we wondered about the others, which include one called mercato, topped with farmers' market veggies including corn and kale; and a "meat market" pie with soppressata and sausage. Spotting some friends at a nearby table, we managed to barter a piece of our chicken for a slice of their patate alla gricia pizza ($15), topped with fatty guanciale cooked to the crispness of bacon and grease-glistening potatoes. It was the best mouthful of the evening.
There's a well-chosen all-Italian wine list with many bottles south of $50, sporting low mark-ups barely over half of retail in many cases, and a small collection of desserts, of which we picked a berry-topped buckwheat tart that tasted like it was filled with rice pudding. Not quite as good as the potato slice, but still quite good in its own way. Bill for two with a bottle of wine, tax, and tip: $180.
And the question on our lips as we strode out into the evening air, dodging guests with suitcases: Will Marta be the next Shake Shack?