When Union Square Hospitality Group opens its newest restaurant Martina in East Village this week, the experience there will be more similar to Danny Meyer creation Shake Shack than to its finer dining sister restaurant, Marta.
People will walk up to a cashier to order, all of which costs under $13 an item. They’ll pick up some dishes like potato croquettes immediately, but to pick up pizza, they’ll grab a buzzer. Once the ultra-thin crust pies like the $7 margherita is finished cooking, diners will walk back up to the counter to pick up their order, as they do at Shake Shack with burgers.
But the chef Nick Anderer — who also runs Maialino and Marta — doesn’t want Martina to be called fast-casual, the moniker for a market that Shake Shack helped popularize. He’s instead trying to make “fine-casual” a thing, saying that service and human interaction will “bring elements of fine dining into elements of fast-casual.”
“When people walk in, they’re not going to feel as though they’re just being shuttled down to a cashier and thrown some food their way and tell them to be on their way,” he says.
Of course, the reality is that terms like “fine-casual” and even “fast-casual” are just jargon to describe what’s essentially a fast food restaurant. And here at Martina, Anderer definitely wants to make the food fast.
Pizzas cook within two minutes, and at prime times, the chef hopes that the kitchen will be able to push out as many as 90 pies an hour. At Marta, a large dining room and the addition of entrees, wine bottle service, and complex appetizers make it difficult to “churn and burn,” Anderer says.
Martina’s slimmed-down menu makes it easier. When it opens, it will offer seven pies, three salads, two larger hot dishes, and two snacks. The idea is that the speed makes it more like a classic Roman pizzeria, Anderer says, particularly the inexpensive and fast kind that he would visit when he was a student in Italy. He also expects many people to take pizza to-go — the team has custom boxes that vent steam while keeping the pizza hot to accommodate those orders.
“I’m not ashamed to say that I want to give my pizza to more people,” the chef says. “I want more people to get a chance to try it. The only way to do that is to get better and faster at what you do.”
Fast-casual pizzerias have been trending nationwide for years now. D.C.-based chain &pizza recently expanded to New York, and the West Coast has launched lots of chains as well, like the LeBron James-backed Blaze that opened on Staten Island this year. They, too, can produce pies en masse. A location of California-based Pieology, which will open two NYC locations soon, can take 150 orders per hour, while Blaze can make 175, according to Buzzfeed News — far more than Martina’s capacity.
Shake Shack faced competition in the burger market when it opened, too. The idea that Martina could be a testing ground for a bigger company doesn’t sound outlandish.
Anderer says more locations are not out of the question, but USHG has not made any announcements yet. For now, he’s putting all attention on the East Village Martina, where it will likely take at least another few weeks to make the restaurant as fast as he wants it to be, Anderer says.
“People will say what they want to say about our business,” he says. “But at the end of the day, the way people feel when they leave the space will hopefully be different than most fast-casual restaurants.”
Take a look at some of the pies and the menu below. Martina, located at 198 East 11th Street, opens on Saturday.