Danny Meyer, the hospitality wizard behind the billion-dollar burger chain that is Shake Shack, now runs a pizzeria in the East Village. Chef Nick Anderer tells me it was built with “scalability” in mind.
The name is Martina; it’s the sister spot to the full-service Marta in Midtown. Like its sibling, the chief offering is thin-crust, Roman-style pies. But here, the pizza is smaller in diameter by 2 inches, cheaper by $10 or more, and fired with gas instead of wood. Guests pay before they eat and seat themselves at bare wooden tables decorated with red pepper shakers and bottles of chile oil. One pie makes a snack. Two make a meal. Everything comes out in under 10 minutes. It’s precisely the type of place where one might expect to swing by for a margherita, which costs $7.
And yet the best thing on the menu is a dish that would feel more appropriate at a Midtown power-dining spot — black truffle pizza. It costs $25.
Anderer tops the pizza with fontina and pork sausage, tosses it into the oven until crisp, then showers it with enough truffles to render the toppings below nearly invisible. The truffles’ pungent, earthy aroma is apparent the moment a runner ferries over the pie. The scent lingers and then yields to the gentle saltiness of the sausage and the warmth of the bread. The pie boasts a respectable-enough interior crust; it’s just a touch thicker than the lavash-thin dough at Marta — making its chew closer to a classic Neapolitan pie — with an exterior rim that, unlike its cracker-like sibling uptown, is softer and more toothsome. It is a fine way for a novice to experience a generosity of black truffles.
The rest of Martina’s pizzas need work. And that’s an assessment worth considering given that a black truffle pie isn’t necessarily the best litmus test for a pizzeria, a vital institution where New Yorkers of all stripes go for a filling meal rather than a snack-sized pie that costs about as much as a hanger steak.
A margherita pie is the better litmus test. It is, in its pristine form, a brilliant conveyance mechanism for the nuances of ripe or canned tomatoes, the preternatural milkiness of mozzarella, the sting of basil, and the grassiness of good olive oil. At Martina the margherita involves an insipid layer of California tomato sauce, with no racy acidity or garden-ripe aromas.
One can describe its flavor with a single word: sweet. The mozzarella, in turn, is more noticeable for its generic stretchiness than its celebration of dairy. The olive oil is sufficiently round and vegetal — more than elsewhere. There is no basil, per the Roman tradition, Anderer says.
In a city with too many great pies to count, this is an exceedingly average one.
I have a theory about fast casual — jargon for ambitious, takeout-focused venues that fall somewhere between fast food and a full-service restaurant — and how it applies to tri-state area pizza.
When diners order a burger at Shake Shack, they’re not looking for the same upscale beef, fancy bun, bloody interior, or $32 price tag as at, say, Minetta Tavern. They want something they can hold in one hand, a burger that’s made with more affordable ingredients, including a patty that hasn’t been dry-aged for a month. The fast-casual burger is different and cheaper than a restaurant burger by design. And yet it is uniquely delicious in its own right.
Meanwhile, when someone orders takeout from Roberta’s Vanderbilt near Grand Central, they’re getting the same pies with the same toppings as Roberta’s proper in Bushwick. There’s no difference in quality or price. Made-to-order takeout pies in New York aren’t a step down from good restaurant pizza. They’re the same pizzas — literally — because in most cases patrons get both from the same place, usually for less than $20 and under 20 minutes. New York, without question, needs more good slice joints, but it does not need a Shake Shack or Sweetgreen to translate or reengineer restaurant pies.
This is what brings us to one of the central problems with Meyer’s new pizzeria: Luxurious outliers like black truffles aside and the solid breadmaking notwithstanding, Martina seems like a downgrade from restaurant pizza. It sometimes feels watered down for mass consumption, lacking the quality and creativity of its sister spot.
The mushroom pie at Marta is studded with heady maitakes. At Martina the funghi pie is just a pile of one-note sliced cremini mushrooms and onion. Marta sells an epically eggy carbonara pie with crispy potatoes and guanciale. Martina’s egg pie, by contrast, is a floppy, messy artichoke and ham pizza with a soft-cooked egg.
Marta, in addition to its standard tomato and cheese pie, offers a mind-bendingly milky stracciatella pizza ($26). Martina just sells that ho-hum margherita.
There’s also no goat sausage pie or pig’s head pie or oxtail pie — the type of quirky preparations that make Marta such an exciting place to dine.
Martina’s arugula-topped four-cheese pie lacks an uptown analogue, which is for the best. The mix of mozzarella, fontina, pecorino romano and pecorino toscano ends up evoking a bland, under-salted dollar slice, with the cheese turning mealy while the pie is just halfway finished. The pepperoni pie, in turn, is a study in heavy-handed acidity; the kitchen throws in enough vinegared peppers to impart the sauce with the pH balance of pickle juice.
The Brussels sprouts pie is the perhaps the best non-truffle order here. Anderer balances the musk of the shredded cabbage and salty pecorino with a heavy dose of pepper and lemon. It’s a smart, tart, vegetable-forward play on the flavors of cacio e pepe.
Martina’s half-bottle Champagne selection is fairly priced, from the $29 Laherte Frères to the $69 Krug (there’s also $7 prosecco by the glass). But it’s hard to feel grateful about good sparkling when there’s no apparent sommelier to guide young gourmands through a reasonably expensive wine purchase, and when that bubbly is served without good stemware. The small plastic cups make even the best wine taste cheap.
And this all brings up the question of accessibility — and the perception of it. A pizzeria sends a very particular message when the only listed pie supplement is “add black truffles for $15” (no pepperoni?) and when the walls are decorated with fancy Champagne bottles. A credit-card-only policy doesn’t help.
The collection of starters — standard potato croquettes, meatballs in sauce, and fried risotto balls — doesn’t quite rise above the level of starchy or meaty mediocrity that one might expect from a generic corner slice spot. Skip them.
Dessert is soft serve, which seems to be the case at too many new cost-cutting restaurants. Martina’s gelato-like version is creamier and denser than most of the competition’s, but it’s not necessarily worth seeking out over nearby East Village ice cream parlors like Van Leeuwen or Sundaes and Cones or Milk Bar.
So that’s Martina. Built to scale, though not yet good enough to scale.