Anthony Mangieri is chef-owner of New York City’s vaunted Una Pizza Napoletana. Acclaim for his pizza flair extends worldwide at this point. Last year, Italy’s 50 Top Pizza organization named his restaurant the Best Pizzeria in the World. The New York Times critic Pete Wells just rated Una Pizza Napoletana the #15 restaurant in New York City. He recently launched Genio Della Pizza, a frozen pizza line made with natural fermented, hand-stretched dough that’s wood-fired in Italy. Margherita, Marinara, Bianca, and Broccoli Rabe pizzas are now available by online delivery and in select markets. No surprise: The New York Times quickly crowned Genio Della Pizza their #1 frozen pizza in a blind taste test.
I first met Mangieri, a fellow New Jersey native, in 2008, when he ran Una Pizza Napoletana in Manhattan’s East Village. He relocated the restaurant to San Francisco before returning to New York City in 2018. It was good to catch up with Mangieri, a true pizza artisan who has strong opinions on the craft and applies similarly high standards to frozen pizza.
Josh Lurie: It seems like during the pandemic, frozen pizza became a more popular option for restaurants who were making pizza in their own brand, but you decided to go with a separate brand. It’s a different product. What was the thinking behind that? You didn’t want to do Una Pizza frozen pizza?
Anthony Mangieri: No. I mean, it would have been easier for marketing and for the initial push to just have people recognize it. But I knew that I wouldn’t be able to recreate what we do in the restaurant. And I didn’t want to dilute what we do in the restaurant. I also didn’t want to dilute the future of what the frozen could be. I wanted that to stand on its own thing.
JL: When did this opportunity come about?
AM: You know, everything happens for a reason, but the original plan was to actually have it be out before the pandemic. I was in the middle of doing R&D in Italy, and once the pandemic hit, it slowed down. I wasn’t able to keep developing of the product. So rather than release it when it wasn’t where I wanted it to be, it just kind of stopped for a year. I was doing a little bit of R&D and trying to build out other parts of the company. But the final wheel, figuring it out, required me going to Italy and working with the co-packer, and that was delayed by at least a year.
JL: Why is it important for you to do this in Italy with Italian products?
AM: It wasn’t really my plan, but after spending a bunch of time in the beginning, when I started this project, I just couldn’t find an option in the U.S. I knew that there was no way that I could produce it because the money that it would take to build a factory and do it yourself and the equipment that you need. I also found I wanted it to be a relatively consistent product within the parameters of being an artisan frozen pizza, but I wanted it to be something that is pretty consistent, and keeps getting better as we continue to figure things out. When I launched it, I wanted it to be at a point already where it was very scalable, and stable as a real CPG and not flash frozen in the restaurant that I’m selling on Goldbelly and I can do like 20 a week. The idea was to do all the backend work and figure out the R&D and find a partner that I could scale it with so that if it worked, I was ready for the growth of what it should be. Then when I was researching and looking around, there were really no options in the U.S, There’s no one in the U.S., that I was able to discover, that was really producing woodfire frozen pizza at scale.
The other problem was the ingredients. I knew that some of the ingredients that I wanted to use on the pizza were going to have to come from Italy. And there was no way to be able to figure out a cost effective way to get those Italian ingredients into the U.S. in the proper format that you would need for scaling. Because when you’re working on that size of production, the way that these things are packaged is even different. You can’t send a pallet of San Marzano tomatoes in little three-kilo cans and have somebody in a factory open like 500 cans of tomatoes every day. This stuff comes in a drum. The oil comes on a pallet in a big container. It’s a completely different business. How would I be able to get these Italian ingredients in that format into the U.S.? It was just, at this point, impossible. Not to say down the road it isn’t going to be possible, but for me right now, I just couldn’t find a partner that can handle that. And that even knew what I was talking about.
A lot of these co-packers in the U.S. – and there are only a handful in the U.S. that actually are scalable, the independents – and the rest is DiGiorno’s and the like and you can’t do anything with them. They’re not going to let you come in and use or partner with them unless you’re already at a very sizable scale as a company, individually. And then the other problem with that is, if you go into there, you’re risking giving away everything that you figured out in R&D, because the thing with those bigger companies like DiGiorno’s, is that really what they don’t have is great ideas. They have money, and they have the ability to scale, but they don’t have ideas or real R&D on anything on the artisan level, so you wouldn’t want to go into a situation like that and have them be able to just take whatever you have to offer the marketplace.
JL: What were the biggest challenges just in developing your recipes and executing?
AM: Once I decided to do it in Italy, I’m trying to find the proper co-packer over there, and I was working with three different co-packers, all at the same time in the beginning, to try to figure out which one could actually do what I wanted. And I finally landed on the one that I would work with. Then it was really just kind of trying to keep them interested and engaged and push the boundaries, mostly in the dough side of things, because at the moment, there’s only so far you can go with dough hydration on a scalable level. You know, if you’re making it in your restaurant, you can do whatever you want, which is what we do when we make like 100 pizzas a night. But for this, the biggest issue in the beginning and still where I want to develop as we continue to grow, and hopefully the frozen pizza landscape changes, is the hydration of the dough. At the moment, we are at the line. We’ve pushed it as far as possible, and it’s already at a line of potentially being stressful for the factory where we’ve had to shut the line down. You know, on occasion, issues come up because the more hydration you have in the bill, the harder it is to handle, the more it gets stuck to the machinery, gets stuck on the belt. Where I’m producing, every dough ball, once it gets to a certain point, is picked up by hand and quickly hand opened. So they’re all touched by human hands. But there’s only so far you can go with the hydration and have people be able to handle it, in that fashion and that fast, because, you have to imagine as the pizza comes out and goes along where they’re standing, they pick it up real quick, open it for a second and set it down, pick up another one and just do this. So there’s limitations and I’d say some of the biggest challenges, which is adapting my choice of what I thought or wanted to produce into the reality of what’s actually producible at scale. The people I work with, on a good day, we can produce almost 50,000 pizzas.
JL: Oh, wow.
AM: Yeah, so that was my goal. How can I make something that I feel happy with, proud of, that can stand on its own, can challenge DiGiorno’s and the like, and Newman’s and Amy’s and give people a healthy option, an option that tastes good with really great ingredients and then go from there. But those were the challenges, just trying to adapt my thinking and my pizzeria mentality to a factory setting. And just working with the people on the oven and all that stuff. I would run around the factory and be driving them all crazy and see them all starting to break. And try to keep them motivated, not kick me out. Because they also had never had a chef or a person come into their setting and challenge them. All these companies they ever worked with, or a Trader Joe’s type situation where their way of making decisions is, “Hey, we produce this unit and it costs us $2. We want to figure out how to produce it for $1.75.” It’s not anything more than that. It’s not like they’re going over there really trying to think outside the box and be like, “Hey, is there a way to make a sourdough crust with more water? And is there a way to make a sauce that has nothing really in it other than tomatoes, and it’s not overseasoned?
Then the other challenge was probably trying to get the Italians to not tell me what the American market wants, because they’re like, “Well, you gotta do this, you gotta do that, because that’s what Americans want.” I’m like, “That’s not true. Not all Americans want garbage.” A lot of Americans also love great food and understand quality and simplicity and natural products. So that was also a challenge to just keep them kind of on the same page.
JL: Can you describe the oven, or the ovens, that you’re using?
AM: Yeah, the oven is amazing. So the company that I work with has two facilities. We started in one facility that was out in the middle of nowhere. And they have one really old, big enormous wood burning oven. And it’s a similar concept to the old bread ovens of Italy and France, where there’s a firebox. It’s not like a pizza oven, where there’s a dome and there’s the fire right in there next to the pizza in the same little area. This is, they’re essentially the size of a huge, huge room. And the pizza goes in from the outside of the room. It enters into the mouth opening and then you can go inside the room. And that’s where the oven operator is all day. And there’s this enormous firebox and they add wood like you would for a bread oven. That allows more temperature control and more consistency. The oven is basically the size of a huge room, and the pizzas move through it on this stone belt. So as they get to the mouth of the oven, they’re on this almost canvas like baker’s canvas. It’s going along on that. Then right as it gets to the mouth opening, that’s where the brick belt is. And the pieces will slide off of the canvas and onto the brick. Then the brick belt moves them through this wood burning oven. Then they come out the other side. And that’s where you finish them with whatever you might need to. We add the fresh garlic by hand and such, or on the margarita afterwards, we add fresh basil.
It’s an amazing thing to see. It’s pretty incredible. I didn’t expect it to be this way, but once I ended up in there, working it and being there, every time we did a production, I sort of approached it like just a bigger pizzeria. You know, so I kept trying to change things or question things and figure things out and it’s been an amazing experience that I never expected.
JL: What would you say the key differences are between an Una Pizza pizza and a Genio Della pizza?