Mountain biking. That’s the difference between having the best pizza on the West Coast in my backyard or, as it stands, 400 miles away. About two years ago, pizzaiolo Anthony Mangieri was at Silver Lake’s Sunset Junction, and we ran into each other at Intelligentsia. He just finished scouting a location around the corner, which would have deposited Una Pizza Napoletana approximately 2.5 miles from my front door. Alas, the same property owner also had a location in SoMa, and this allowed Mangieri to live across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, apparently a bigger lure for a ravenous mountain biker. Oh well, his pizza is still significantly closer than it was in New York.
Mangieri achieved great success with the white-tiled oven constructed in Italy, but he generously left it behind for the owners of Motorino, who colored it black. If anything, his new aqua-tiled oven, with a dome shipped from his wife’s hometown of Naples, is even more impressive. The oven anchors what amounts to a performance space. Mangieri makes every pizza himself within clear view of diners both seated and waiting. Saint Anthony, the patron saint of people who work with fire, including firemen and bakers, also watches down from behind the oven.
Mangieri initially burned almond wood, but decided it burns too wild, and the wood was too dense, so he switched to walnut. During our visit, he was getting ready to switch back to white birch from Estonia, his preferred wood, just like he had in New York. Another key component is his 24-hour sourdough starter. During my initial visit to Una Pizza Napoletana last November, Mangieri said that the pizza is exactly the same as it was in New York, but it took a couple weeks for his movements to once again become automatic. If anything, the pizza was even better 10 months later.
Each pizza is approximately 12 inches in diameter, good for one person. You want a slice? Don’t even bother asking. Every pizza arrives ultra fresh, baked to order. You want meat? That’s another no-no. Mangieri said he doesn’t use meat because it takes away from the sauce, takes away from the cheese and takes away from the dough. However, he does occasionally use meat for his staff.
Our Margherita ($20) featured San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt and fresh basil. The crust was chewy, not overcooked, with blistered bubbles and a singed bottom, but not crispy, pretty much ideal texture and contrast. Crisping the basil (including stems) in the oven makes a big difference, instead of adding it to the pizza after baking.
If we were only able to order one pizza, it would have been the Margherita, since that’s the Neapolitan pizza archetype. It’s also useful, for comparison’s sake, to order a sauce-free white pie. The Bianca ($20) touted a similar crust and complement of ingredients: molten still-stretchy Buffalo mozzarella, extra-virgin olive oil, basil, sea salt and a subtle hit of fresh garlic.
Ilaria ($22) is named for his Naples-born wife, who also writes the rotating poetry that appears on the back of the menu. This pizza didn’t exist when he was still in New York. It had a fairly different flavor profile, with smoked mozzarella, extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt, fresh cherry tomatoes, which delivered sweet acidity, and arugula, which contributed a bitter, spicy element. Mangieri once again found a harmonious balance, but took a different route to get there.
They had a small selection of wine and bottled Italian beers, but my choice was the Red Bitter ($3), which arrived in a tiny 3.4-ounce bottle and carried a concentrated bitter after taste, the flavor of chinotto. This was a good non-alcoholic aperitif.
Mangieri said he eats his own pizza once a week. At some point, there probably is too much of a good thing, though it’s hard to imagine how long it would take to reach that threshold. Meat or no meat, it’s hard to imagine finding better Neapolitan pizza in the U.S. That includes Pizzeria Bianco.