Anthony Mangieri is more punk rock than you and I will ever be. I'm not referring to the Una Pizza Napoletana owner's tattoos, which spread in from his knuckles to only-his-wife-knows. And I'm not hinting at some kind of unchecked aggro that leaches from his pores and stains the room — maybe his waiters get a taste of that kind of anger, but the guy I interviewed after seemed sweet-tempered and open. No, Anthony Mangieri is punk rock in the manner of Henry Rollins and Patti Smith in that his pizza obsession makes no compromises. It's romantic, even charismatic, in its purity.
Eating at Una Pizza Napoletana, which opened on 11th and Harrison streets a few months ago after a legendary five-year run in New York, means that you, the diner, operate by Mangieri's rules.
One: no reservations. Two: limited hours. He's open for dinner, four days a week, from 5 until the dough runs out. Three: You wait, generally around two hours — first to get a seat, then until he makes your pie. You do not get to snack on salad while you wait; you do not get to have dessert after you are finished. Four: Mangieri makes four and only four pizzas, none of which have meat. He has included a fifth on his new menu, but he's been waiting to secure the right ingredients ever since the place opened. Maybe next week, the waitress says, week after week.
So you have to keep in mind that eating at Una Pizza Napoletana is not about you. To Mangieri's credit, it's not about him, either, except perhaps for the four-days-a-week schedule. It's about the pizza.
As I said, punk rock.
Quick history: Mangieri says he started making pizza at 15, started off baking naturally leavened breads, then opened his first pizzeria in his hometown in New Jersey. In 2004, he moved Una Pizza Napoletana to Manhattan and became an icon — a passionate specialist in a city of specialist restaurants. Despite enduring acclaim, in 2009 he sold his place to another cult pizza maker and left the East Coast. Mangieri traveled to Italy, met up with an old flame, got married. Then he moved to San Francisco and built a punk-rock club of a restaurant, with all-but-bare walls, cement floors, and in the center of the room, a blue-and-white tiled oven and Mangieri's workstation.
Those of us who weren't as familiar with Mangieri's reputation as we were with San Francisco's pizza glut greeted the arrival of UPN with a big like, really? San Francisco needs more pizza? With more attitude? Okay, I'm not talking about “those of us,” I'm talking about me.
If you come before the five o'clock opening hour, there is a line. If you come after 5:30, and that wave of early customers has bustled to their tables, the line reforms. The average customer age is 25. (The outliers on one night were my party and a middle-aged couple doing everything to entertain their little girl for an hour, including handing over the iPhone and playing pattycake.) Average piece of clothing: the hoodie, sometimes worn tight over cigarette-leg jeans and sometimes big and bunched, usually paired with a Giants cap.
The line at least gives you a chance to study Mangieri. You'd be surprised, given his rules, how relaxed he is, how diffuse his attention appears to be because time has transformed it into pure intuition. He works with the rhythm of the oven, stopping to chat with customers who pay him court. The pizzaiolo pats out dough midsentence — a few coarse slaps seem to do it — and marks the completion of each pie by swirling a can of oil overtop. Occasionally he tends the fire. A long-handled shovel for distributing coals, which you've first mistaken for a mike, darts in and out of its glowing mouth like a hummingbird's bill.
Parties of two move up the ranks faster than parties of three or four. Don't even attempt to go in a pack of six. Once a table has opened up, you can rush your order to the black-clad waiter and then spend the next 45 minutes getting buzzed on one of the Campania wines on Mangieri's short list — a flower-nosed falanghia, a fizzy red-grape quencher called Gragnano. Finally, one or two of the pizzas you watch Mangieri pull from the oven, smoking like they're about to explode, arrives at your table. Driven by starvation, you cut in as fast as you can to make sure you're going to get that pizza at the peak pizza moment.
I, for one, loved it.
There have been so many Neapolitan-style pizzas in San Francisco, with their official certification from the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, their floppy millimeter-thick cores, and their mannered, precisely rounded rim. I have eaten maybe two of these pies, in five years of being inundated by them, which have caught my attention. Mangieri's margherita (tomato sauce, fresh basil, buffalo mozzarella) and filetti (buffalo mozzarella, garlic, cherry tomatoes, fresh basil) turned out to be the Neapolitan pizzas I always imagined.
The crust had wild, unplanned rises and falls, as well as great black bubbles that shattered at the touch. The bottom could be micrometer-thin in spots and puffier in others, as if the dough rather than Mangieri dictated its shape. That crust — and I'm a crust guy, often indifferent to the toppings — had a honest, wheaty smell, tinged with smoke. Every bite tasted differently than the last.
In contrast to the cultivated unpredictability of the crust, the toppings were spread with a deft syncopation. In any one bite, a pool of mozzarella might be announced by a scorched, aromatic herb leaf, or a whiff of garlic could presage the gush of a fresh tomato. And while most of the other self-titled Neapolitan pizzas in San Francisco toughen and slump after a minute or two, the last piece of Mangieri's pies captivated my attention almost as much as the first — and I ate more of those pizzas than anyone else at the table.
Like any convert, I have thoughts that have been occupied by Una Pizza Napoletana ever since. Yeah, I know that a couple of pizzas plus a bottle of wine can cost around $30 a person, but it's a rare thing for me to eat something done so purely, so right. And each time I fend off the urge to return (obviously easier on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday than the four days he's open for business), I think of that wait, and I say to myself: Perhaps next week. Perhaps the week after. Perhaps if I find myself with a free evening and a couple of Clif Bars in my bag.