By all means, go to L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele and try the margherita ($20). Located at the corner of Greenwich Avenue at 2 Bank Street in the West Village, da Michele is an offshoot of a venerable Naples pizza parlor founded in 1870 (the same destination featured in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love). The pizza that sat before me in our newly opened branch seemed nearly identical to the one I’d eaten years before in Italy at the original da Michele. And it came closer to replicating the taste and appearance of true Neapolitan pizza than anything yet in New York City.
The crust was soft and stippled with char (with no large burned patches), and a puffy cornicione — or bone, or handle: whatever you may call the circumferential hump of crust. The middle of the pie was damp and thin, making it impossible to pick up a slice and eat it by way of the New York fold. Moreover, the cheese was cow’s milk mozzarella applied in tiny dollops as in Naples, and the sauce was a simple puree of canned tomatoes, with fresh basil leaves strewn prior to baking.
While we have literally dozens of Naples-style pies produced here, most are from American acolytes who can’t quite bring themselves to do a perfect Naples pie — or maybe don’t have exactly the right ingredients, or they’re adding oregano and more to the sauce. Or perhaps they make the crust a little more firm since Americans disdain eating pizza with a knife and fork (Bill de Blasio was mocked for doing just that).
Indeed, the true pie of Naples is an exercise in perfectly textured plainness, a pleasure to eat precisely because it tastes wholesome without challenging with sharp flavors. Also, American pizzaioli often can’t help offering a few additional toppings that Americans expect, like pepperoni (rarely seen in Italy) or superfluous extra cheeses to ramp up the richness.
Not that da Michele USA’s margherita gets everything exactly right. Its irregular 15-inch pie is bigger than the Neapolitan original (making it easier to share), and on the day a friend and I tried it, the thing had been cut into slices, something not done in Naples, where diners cut it themselves.
Naples’ da Michele is a modest affair compared to the New York location. With a vaulted ceiling and whitewashed interior, the original sports only a few rickety tables, and patrons drink Coke or beer with their pizza, of which only two types are available — marinara and margherita. Our own da Michele looks nothing like the original. Around 6,000 square feet, an airy barroom leads to an open prep area, followed by a parallel giant dining room with a view of the domed pizza oven, comprising three storefronts in all. Downstairs is a more night-clubby room with reputedly lavish decorations, not yet open.
The menu at the moment is refreshingly simple, though with eight pies instead of two. It is anchored by a marinara (which may be had with anchovies, unlike Naples) and a margherita, though a double margherita is also offered with twice as much cheese. This didn’t seem like a very good idea, since the regular margherita already had considerably more cheese than its inspiration back in Naples. The idea, I guess, is that Americans like their pies really cheesy.
A white pizza is also an option, along with an arugula and prosciutto pizza, and one with spicy salami. One pie more boldly conceived is called simply pesto ($34) which sports profuse dribbles of bright green sauce, wedges of fresh tomato, and a big weeping ball of burrata in the center. What to do with the burrata? Pick it up and throw it like a softball, maybe. Burrata doesn’t belong on a pizza. The pesto is not particularly good, either, making this pie a disaster.
The current menu has other small sections, though pizza remains the core. There are little gnocchi sandwiches with mozzarella and prosciutto, quite good, and a Caesar salad (first invented at an Italian restaurant in Mexico and certainly not Neapolitan) that seems deficient in anchovies but otherwise richly dressed. There are currently a couple of charcuterie boards that we didn’t try, as well as two sandwiches.
The wine list offers a handful of reds and whites from all over Italy with glasses in the $15 to $19 range, of which an Aglianico rosato that comes from Campania goes exceptionally well with the margherita. With its pale color and flinty taste, it was hard to imagine this wine had come from the hearty Aglianico grape. The Mexican coke ($7) comes closest to what one might actually drink in Naples with a pizza.
Apparently, the menu will be expanded to three or four times the current size, something like the menu already in place in the pre-existing Los Angeles branch. It will highlight appetizers, pastas, and main courses — including things like arancini, grilled octopus, linguine with clams and bottarga, spaghetti cacio e pepe, a Delmonico steak, and — God help us — an “Antica truffle burger.” This kind of sprawling Italian and American menu is so out of touch with the original da Michele, it can’t help but eclipse the pizza menu, or make pizza seem more like an appetizer. I can only suggest you dash over to da Michele right away while it still retains its identity as a pizzeria. The margherita is not to be missed.