NYC has had a long tradition of making great pizza and the New York style of Neapolitan influenced round pizza, often sold by the slice, is one of my favorite City traditions. In recent years though, NYC has been the beneficiary of an influx of pizzerie based upon the Neapolitan original. The style known as la vera pizza Napolitana has arrived and made its mark in the City, competing for honors as the best pizza in the City.
Roberto Caporuscio’s Kesté Pizza & Vino on Bleeker Street, perhaps the best of the Neapolitan imports, has deservedly won much praise since it opened, including from me. It continues to go strong, but now Caporuscio has opened another pizzeria to keep him busy and to lay claim as one of the City’s very best. This one, Midtown West’s Don Antonio by Starita, done in conjunction with star Neapolitan pizzaiolo, Antonio Starita, adds a few Neapolitan twists that may soon make their way to Kesté, as well.
Visiting early on a recent Sunday with one of my sons and a friend, we put it to the test. We arrived shortly before the restaurant opened for business at 11:30AM, a time on a Sunday that I would not generally consider to be a peak for a pizzeria, but then we weren’t ordering slices that may have been sitting for a few hours. Caporuscio himself was at the helm, with his daughter at the oven composing the pies. While she appeared to be a very adept learner, he was the one putting the pies in the hot, wood-fired oven and monitoring their progress. They along with an affable and efficient front-of-the-house made an excellent team.
The menu has enticing choices of antipasti, insalate and panini, but on this day, we were here for pizza. Those will have to wait for another visit. We ordered four different kinds of pizza. The first one to arrive at our table was the Regina Margherita, a thin crust pie with fresh grape tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala and basil. The Margherita at Don Antonio uses cow’s milk mozzarella instead of bufala and includes pecorino romano. In my experience, in Naples a Margherita and would be sure to have included mozzarella di bufala (actually a redundant term as mozzarella in Naples is bufala. Cow’s milk mozzarella is known as fiori di latte), San Marzano tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, a couple of large basil leaves, the dough and nothing more. With the red, green and white colors of the Italian flag, this pizza was first made in Naples to honor the Queen of Italy, whose name happened to be Margherita. At Don Antonio, the Regina is distinguished from a straightforward Neapolitan Margherita by the fresh grape tomato sauce. With the bufala and the absence of pecorino, Don Antonio’s Regina Margherita is the one that conforms most closely to the gold standard of la vera pizza napoletana, so that is the one we ordered.Baked for a brief time in the blistering oven, this was a marvelous example of the genre. The crust had crisp, blistered edges with enough central fortitude to eat by the slice. Despite the fact that we were in mid-winter, the sauce was sweetly redolent of deep summer tomatoes and the bufala was divine. We were off to a stellar start! The Margherita is a standard by which to compare pizzerie, but the quality of the other pies helps to determine the depth of the pizzaiolo’s culinary skill. Our second pie was from the list of Pizze Speciale. The Pistachio e Salsiccia starred those two ingredients, but not in an obvious way, at least for the pistachio. The green nuts were ground and used in a pesto, which was combined with superb sausage, pecorino romano, olive oil and house-made fiori di latte to make a powerfully delicious and unique pie. The pistachio flavor was sufficiently delineated, but its presence was sotto voce, adding to the overall flavor of the pie without dominating it. Starita has become very well known for his Montanara pie, a pizza that is both fried and baked. This relatively new kind of pizza has become quite popular in Naples and was recently introduced to NYC at Forcella. For the Montanara, the dough is first deep-fried before the toppings are added and the pie is finished in the oven. The frying gives the crust a nuttier flavor and a firmer consistency. The combination of that dough along with Don Antonio’s toppings of smoked buffalo mozzarella and delicious tomato sauce is totally beguiling, and to my taste, even better than Forcella’s fine example. Starita’s Montanara is more than a novelty. This is a delicious meal, that I believe will become a NYC fixture. Lastly, we had a calzone, which is basically a stuffed pizza. Growing up in Brooklyn, I was spoiled by some fabulous calzones. The best ones were from Lenny’s on 5th Avenue. These were stuffed with mozzarella, ricotta and ham. I can still taste them in my memory and they remain my benchmark. At Don Antonio, we had the “Night and Day” calzone, which had ingredients on the outside as well as inside. The inside of this calzone was like the one of my memory with fresh ricotta, homemade mozzarella and Italian ham, but it didn’t stop there. On top there was more. Tomato sauce, homemade mozzarella, pecorino romano, basil, extra virgin olive oil all added depth and flavor. For me, though, the key component of both Don Antonio’s calzone and the one from Lenny’s was the ricotta, which gives a wonderfully rich mouth feel and flavor. I loved all the pizzas, but it was this calzone that truly stole my heart here.
There is so much great pizza in NYC today of so many different styles, that it is impossible to choose a single “best” pizza or pizzeria, but for my money, Roberto Caporuscio’s pizzas, whether at Kesté or now at Don Antonio by Starita, are as great as any. I look forward to returning and trying more of what they have to offer.