Very few foods have the power to trigger an argument like pizza. Whether it’s Neapolitan, deep dish, grilled, or coal-fired, everybody’s got an opinion about the ideal oven, dough, sauce and toppings. In the past 25 years, Toms River, New Jersey native Anthony Mangieri has forged his own exacting methods for creating Neapolitan-style pizza. He started in his parents’ kitchen and later graduated to his series of pizzerias, all called the same name: Una Pizza Napoletana. His latest incarnation resides in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood. On March 30, I met with Mangieri before he rolled up Una Pizza’s front door, and he shared some compelling insights that hint at why his pizza just might be the best on the planet.
Where did you make your very first pizza and how did it turn out?
My very first pizza was made in my mom’s kitchen, or in my grandmother’s kitchen. Not good. They didn’t turn out good for a long time. I made a lot of them at home. I was also baking bread, so it was between the two, and making the pizza in a pan, and then pizza stones came out, and I got a pizza stone. Then they started coming out a little bit better. Then I even started making them in my mom’s fireplace, cause I had this idea that it resembled a brick oven…It came out awful because there was too much open air, but it did pop more than it ever did, so I was like, “Ah, it will work.” And eventually my dad built a brick oven in the backyard of my parents’ house, which also didn’t work good, because we didn’t know what we were doing, and we didn’t know how to make the dome. It was square inside, with a flat roof, but it looked cool. We stucco’d it and added terracotta to the roof of it. It was huge. The cooking area was probably as big as this table, a two-foot square, but the entire oven probably took up seven feet, and it was like six feet high. It was enormous, and it sat in the corner of the backyard and for years after, any time I would come over to the house, my father was like, “You’ve got to get that thing knocked down. Get rid of it.”
Eventually we did, after it sat there for years and years and never got used. It was a mess.
Was it a given that you would make pizza for a living or did you consider other careers?
I wanted to be a jazz musician, but I realized I wasn’t good at that. That was something I really loved, jazz music.
The bass, originally, but I started playing the guitar also. Then it was both. I tried to join the musicians’ union in Atlantic City. I was 17 or something, and I was so nervous, because you actually have to go and try out with the lady in the union in the union hall, and they have a piano in the union hall. The lady plays the piano and I have to play along and I was like this – [shaking] – and I think they saw I could play, or at least read music, and I was like unexposed to playing with people, and I took it so personal and was so scared. They were like, “You need to play around other people first.” They were honest, “You can join, and you’re going to have to pay the dues, but we’re never, ever going to call you,” because there are old guys that have been in the union forever that are master musicians that don’t get jobs. Then I didn’t give up. I keep trying, but at the same time, I was really into food and Italy, so one just started to take more and more focus after that, and I got into this.
What continues to inspire you about pizza?
I’m inspired by trying to make something come out great. I don’t think it’s really about pizza at this point. As far as any other pizza, no pizza on earth inspires me. I went away from that long, long ago. Before I even went to New York City, I was going to Italy, and I met my future wife, and already at that time, before anybody in America even cared about Neapolitan pizza, I already knew what I was doing was, in my opinion, better than anything in Naples. That was when I was twenty-something, and now I’m 40. From then to now, I’ve certainly gotten a million times better. Back then in New Jersey, I had my own business, and I had no employees, so I did everything. I waited tables, I answered the phone, I made pizza. It was funny because a lot of people in this small town where it was, especially in the winter, when there was no tourist season since we were near the beach, they got used to this weird way we did things. It actually got to where you would bring your dishes to the kitchen when you were done eating. I’m not kidding. And the drinks were in the refrigerator. People were like, “I’m going to get a Coke.” It was beautiful, and a lot of those people became friends of mine, and some of those people came out here the first week that we opened, from all those years ago, from New York City, to here, they were like, “We’re coming out for the opening.”
That’s pretty cool.
Yeah, it was beautiful. So as far as inspiration, I’m pretty self-motivated with everything in my life. I don’t really look to anything outside of my own thing. Obviously, my wife is an inspiration to me. I’ve got some friends that are inspiring people, with the art and stuff that they do. But really, at the end, it’s just me being driven.
Have you had any pizza mentors over the years?
Not really. I was a super shy kid. It was a different world then, or maybe I was different. I saw the world differently then. When I was really into pizza, I’d got to Totonno’s in Brooklyn and John’s on Bleecker. And actually the owner of John’s was a nice guy and helped me out with trying to get an oven back then. Back then, good luck trying to find one, because computers weren’t really around, so if you wanted a brick oven, who do you call for a brick oven? It was beautiful. It was mysterious. You had to really look for something and search, so he was nice. I would say mentors as far as places that I loved, but not that I ever even talked to them, because I was scared to death. I’d go in. My mom used to take me everywhere and I was like – [peeks out from under arms] – I’d try to watch what they’re doing, but I wouldn’t want them to look at me, because it was different.
It wasn’t like now. People come in and they assume that people know everything. “Where do you get this?” “Where do you get that?” “Who does this?” I’ve had people come in and they’re like, “Your pizza’s pretty good.” “Oh, thanks.” “I have a pizzeria.” I’m like, “Oh great, that’s what we need, another one.” “But my dough doesn’t come out like yours.” “I’ve been doing this for 25 years! One thing. Every day of my life, this is all I do. You’ve been open for a week. What do you want from me?” But people just assume the way the world is now, “Boom!” I talk about this all the time with my good friend who works here now, who’s a super knowledgeable wine guy and used to work for Mario Batali. I’ve known him for years and years, and his family’s from the Amalfi Coast. People now feel like they can just buy everything and that automatically gives them credibility, automatically makes them a master. You cannot buy experience. You cannot buy excellence. You cannot buy any of those things. You cannot buy skill. People buy the oven, they buy this, they buy that, whatever profession they’re in, it’s a shame, because the world promotes that in a way. It’s almost like you can come out now and be like, “Oh, I bought this oven, and I bought these plates, and I bought the mixer, I buy the same flour and tomatoes, and I use the oil, and I’ve never done this before in my life, but it’s been my dream, so I’m going to open the place, and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, and people are going to come and they’re going to pay like 20 bucks.” Or maybe a little less, because I feel like I should get more than most people. For experience, I feel like I should get 50 bucks a pizza.” People will be like, “Oh that place is as good as Una Pizza.” “You’re out of your mind, man.” That’s not to say the pizza here can’t be crappy some nights. All the care is there, the universe just isn’t helping me that night, whether the dough didn’t raise right or the oven’s working weird, but my skill, my experience, I feel like I still pull it together somewhat, and it’s still better than anybody else’s around. That’s my true feeling without ego.
Is your pizza better in San Francisco than in New York?