REVIEW: Una Pizza Napoletana SF, Opening Night

Una Pizza Napoletana is the sort of place you just want to love. The nondescript, industrial facade of its building looks more like the garage it was in its last life than the edgy, artisanal pizza-making operation it houses in its present. It makes you feel as though you’re in on some fantastic secret. As I stood in the inaugural line on September 15, Una Pizza’s first night of business in San Francisco, there was woodsmoke and a hint of legend in the air. Pizza aficionados spoke in excited tones of how long they’d waited to try Anthony Mangieri’s famed pies. A few fortunate ones related their experiences at Una Pizza’s previous location, in New York’s East Village. Names of “grail” pizzerias like Patsy’s, Pizzeria Bianco and Grimaldi’s peppered the conversation.

Una Pizza started in Point Pleasant, New Jersey in 1996, then moved to the East Village in 2004. It developed a distinguished reputation and patrons lined up outside until Una Pizza closed for the night – not at a set time, but whenever pizzaiolo Mangieri ran out of dough. In July, 2009, Mangieri closed the shop in New York with a plan to move west to the milder climate of California. He considered my hometown, Santa Cruz, but ultimately settled on 210 11th Street in San Francisco.

After a two-hour wait – the space only holds 32 diners at a time – I was finally in the door. From there I got a prime view of Mangieri working his magic, making the pies and sliding them into the blue tiled pizza oven made in Napoli.

The space is sparsely appointed, basically just a concrete floor with plain walls. The pizza oven is the dominant feature (rightfully so), flanked by stacks of the Estonian Birch that keeps the fires burning. St. Antonio Abate, Mangieri’s named saint, watches over everything from a perch above the pizza oven. It’s spare, it’s edgy, it’s perfect for a temple of pizza purism.

I was led to the seating area, having reviewed the menu online so that I could be ready with my order immediately, to help advance the line behind me as quickly as possible. (Plus, yeah… I was hungry by this time!) But no one asked me for my order for another 20 minutes. Which was fine; it was the first night and I can forgive a staff still figuring things out. The menu at Una Pizza is extremely basic. There are no appetizers or salads, no desserts. Just four 12″ pizzas: Marinara (tomatoes, olive oil, oregano, garlic, basil and sea salt), Margherita (tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, olive oil, basil, sea salt), Bianca (Buffalo mozzarella, olive oil, garlic, basil, sea salt) and Filetti (Fresh cherry tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, garlic, olive oil, basil, sea salt.) A fifth pizza, the Ilaria (named for Mangieri’s wife) was listed on the website but not yet available that first night. It features smoked mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, arugula, olive oil and sea salt. Each pizza, large enough for one hungry person (which most are likely to be given the wait and lack of first courses) is $20. The menu also includes a few Italian wines and two Italian beers. The spartan menu, much like the industrial-chic decor, suits a serious and focused pizzeria just fine, in my opinion. So I did not consider the limited selection a negative.

I ordered the Margherita and an Italian Lager. As I waited, I was surprised to notice, at an adjacent table, two pizzas that looked very different from one another. One looked like the ideal Napoletana-style pizza, with the requisite char marks, and the other looked sort of anemic and underdone.

When my pizza arrived, it looked like the better of the two pizzas at the next table. The crust had uneven edges riddled with bubbled areas and black char marks around the rim and on the bottom… Perfect.

I picked up my knife and fork – in keeping with Italian tradition, Una Pizza serves their pies unsliced – and cut my first slice. My impression of the first bite was that the crust was good, the cheese was perfect and the sauce was imperceptible, but more than anything the whole slice was extremely salty. Overly so. (And I’m a salt fiend; it takes a lot for me to think something is too salty!) When I got to the edge of the slice, I found that the outer rim crust was actually rather gummy inside, with a chewiness similar to that of a leftover piece of pizza that’s spent a night in the refrigerator. That was unexpected and disappointing. As I continued eating, it became evident that the crust was actually charred to an unpleasant extent; it was bitter, and that combined with the extreme saltiness made for an experience that was not at all good, and fell far short of the hype.

I can forgive the slow service, the minimalist menu and the $20 price. Those are all trivial things if the pizza is really a transcendent experience, an ideal representation of a Napoletana-style pie. But it wasn’t. If I hadn’t been starving after waiting almost three hours, I would have sent it back. I can’t forgive that. Because consistency is part of the craft. The master pizzaiolo limits all variables – the ingredients, the number of tables, the menu – to the most he can accommodate while still maintaining his quality and reproducibility. Even opening night shouldn’t make a difference; lines out the door have been a way of life for Mangieri for years now, and the equipment and operations are the same no matter where he sets up shop.

I do believe that Una Pizza Napoletana can and does produce pizzas worthy of its hype, some of the time; there are enough rave reviews to attest to that, and it’s obvious that Mangieri is an artisan and a purist with the level of passion it takes to achieve perfection. But for an extended wait and a $20 pizza, I don’t want to play Italian Roulette; I would like to be reasonably certain I’m going to get one of those hype-worthy pizzas, rather than the one I got.

Una Pizza Napoletana
210 11th Street @ Howard
San Francisco, CA 94103
Open Wed-Sat, 5pm until out of dough

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