In 1996, La Pizza Fresca Ristorante rocked our pizza world by opening on 20th Street north of Union Square. It was an elegant spot with fancy wine and a wood-burning oven: unusual then, but commonplace now. It focused on pizza, but not the New York kind descended from places like Lombardi’s and Totonno’s. Instead, it claimed to serve the true pizza of Naples, and the next year was certified by an Italian trade organization, Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana, as being authentic through the use of certain kinds of imported flour and tomatoes and other arcane aspects of pizza-making.
The pies were small and puffy, and had to be eaten with a knife and fork because the center was so damp. The tomato sauce was plain and seemingly with little seasoning and the cheese creamier than the low-moisture mozzarella usually found on pizzas. These pies were tasty, but, gee, were they different from the slices grabbed on street corners and washed down with Coke.
The reaction of New Yorkers was mixed, but La Pizza Fresca persisted and turned out to be wildly influential, because over the succeeding years, many restaurants have attempted to produce the true pies of Naples, and many more have used them as a jumping off point for their own adventures in Pizzaland.
Pizzaioli have flocked here from Italy to set up their own operations, like miners rushing to California looking for gold, but our most famous maker of true Neapolitan pies is homegrown: Jersey-born Anthony Mangieri established the first branch of Una Pizza Napoletana on the Jersey Shore in 1996, the same year La Pizza Fresca appeared, moved it to the East Village, then to San Francisco, and finally back to the Lower East Side in 2018.
Mangieri’s pizzas are considered some of the best in New York City, and were recently named, rather absurdly, as the best in the world. Meanwhile, a pizzeria sometimes considered the best in Naples, L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele (founded in 1870), set up a branch in the West Village earlier this year. Unlike the original, which was a small floury room with only two or three tables when I visited over a decade ago, this branch is gigantic and sumptuously outfitted.
I decided to compare the margherita pizza at both Una Pizza and Da Michele in quick succession to see which is best.
Una Pizza Napoletana
Getting into Una Pizza Napoletana takes some conniving: It’s only open three days a week (Thursday, Friday, and Saturday) from 5 p.m. on, and remains open until the dough for the day runs out. I won’t bother you with the difficulty of getting a reservation; the only option for me was to go early on a Thursday and stand in line. I managed to snag a seat at the bar.
Like actors taking the stage, Mangieri and his two assistants appeared in the kitchen at the end of the room, where a wood-burning oven dubbed Una was already flaming up. A half dozen pies were available, of which the pepperoni pie surprised me — nothing could be more un-Neapolitan. But then the frozen pizza case that stood beside me also seem a little out of character.
I ordered the margherita ($25) and it arrived 15 minutes later. It was puffier than the usual Neapolitan pie, charred here and there, with the toppings pooled in the middle, and the little lozenges of melted mozzarella. The tomato sauce was pale, and basil leaves scattered here and there, having been added before the pie went into the oven. The pie was lighter than those I’d tried from the same pizzaiolo in the East Village and San Francisco, reminding me that though the ingredients may be limited, Mangieri, the pizza scientist, is constantly experimenting with proportions and techniques.
L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele
I soon found myself at Da Michele in the West Village. I had no trouble getting in at lunch, and picked the sunny room — one of two — where breakfast is served. As I sat drinking a glass of San Pellegrino, the pizzaiolo and his assistant arrived and made their way to the next room, where the pizza oven is set up in full view of the more formal dining room. In New York City, pizza is theater.
When the margherita ($22) arrived, the diameter was greater by at least two or three inches than Una Pizza’s. As is never done in Naples, it had been cut into slices. The pizza here was not as inflated as Mangieri’s, and looked more damp. The circumferential hump of crust was not as wide either — reminding me that Una Pizza’s version had more in common with bread than the pizza that sat before me.
When I carved out the first bite, the crust was dense, wet, and thin; the cheese more profuse; the tomato sauce a shade darker, but also seemingly unseasoned. And while I was able to eat two-thirds of Mangieri’s pie, I made my way through only half of this one.
So, who won?
Una Pizza’s margherita is a miracle of pizza development and evolution unlike any other Neapolitan pie in the world, with its springy texture and premium toppings. And you don’t feel weighted down after finishing it because it’s light. The larger Da Michele’s pizza is also perfectly desirable, with cheese slightly more rubbery and basil more profuse — it’s well worth eating, but has lost the contest.
Of course, the whole idea that Naples style pizzas are better than New York’s is absurd, the result of a 30-year con job. And given the choice between a shrunken and bready Neapolitan pizza, and a generously topped pie from, say, Joe & Pat’s in the East Village, Pepe’s in New Haven, or even a fugazza from Banchero in Buenos Aires, I’d take pick one of the latter pies nine out of 10 times.