"There's no mythic, century-old pizza lore emanating from Pizza Mezzaluna. What you will find instead is fine pizza made in a wood-burning oven by an experienced pizzaiolo..."
146 West Houston Street, New York, NY 10012 (b/n MacDougal and Sullivan; map); 212-533-1242
Service: Warm, friendly, solicitous
Setting: The most cheerful pizzeria I've ever been in. There are clouds on the ceiling. 'Nuff said
Compare It To: Mezzaluna, La Pizza Fresca, Luzzo's, Celeste
Must-Haves: Pizzette if you're alone, tuna pizza, salad pollanca, calzone, tiramisu
Cost: $10 to $35 a person depending on the size and scope of your meal
In the pizza-obsessed town that is New York, you think it would be news when an experienced New York pie man from southern Italy opens a tiny jewel box of a pizzeria in the old DeMarco's space right next to Raffetta's, especially when said pizzeria has a gorgeous wood-burning oven (with gas assist) and a resolutely cheerful look and feel (the ceiling is painted with a blue sky and many clouds), making it one of the few pizzerias in New York that has a sunny disposition.
But Francesco Vitale and his wife, Lili Chu, opened Pizza Mezzaluna three months ago, and the food press and bloggers have somehow let it slip under the pizza radar, which as we all know is insanely powerful in this burg. Maybe it's because Pizza Mezzaluna is associated with Mezzaluna, perhaps the seminal wood-oven restaurant in New York, making it old news. Or maybe because Vitale has never been an object of affection to pizza-loving sorts like me.
But let it be said right now: Pizza Mezzaluna didn't slip past the Serious Eats crew. I discovered it wandering around Houston Street and Soho a couple of Saturdays ago and returned last week with Robyn in tow. On my initial solo visit I had tried a fine traditional Margherita pizza and a brilliant invention, a $5, seven-inch individual pizza, a pizzette, that Vitale makes to order (usually in less than five minutes) and sells in lieu of slices. It's a brilliant conceit worthy of MacArthur Genius Grant consideration.
The 12-inch pies ($14 to $17) that come out of the oven are minimally puffy, light-crusted beauties with fine hole structure. (In my perfect pizza world the cornicione would be another inch higher, however.) In style, these pies fall smack dab in the middle of the wood-oven New York Neapolitan-style pizza tradition of Pizza Fresca, Luzzo's, and yes, Mezzaluna. If you do the crust-tearing thing here, you will find that the crust is cooked all the way through, from the outer lip to the center of the pie. Said crust also gets a properly blistered char, though bubble freaks might be disappointed at the lack of huge bubbles. Even the impossibly cute pizzette ($5) has a fine crust. All the crust needs to achieve crust greatness is some sea salt.
Vitale uses Grande fior di latte, an acceptable but curious choice given that Joe's Dairy is literally right around the corner. (Try the smoked mozzarella, Francesco. It's as good as smoked mozzarella gets in this town.)
The funghi e salsiccia ($17), mushroom and sausage, is a fine example of my litmus test pie. It's helped immeasurably by the Salumeria Biellese sausage.
The shocker is the tonno, or tuna pizza ($16). That's right—the tuna pizza. I wanted to hate it, but it was really tasty and even made sense once we started eating it. In this case, the whole pizza really does exceed the sum of its parts—Sicilian tuna, tomato, mozzarella, red onions, and capers. It must be said that I have always held the opinion that capers and canned tuna are a classic and seriously delicious combination.
If you're really hungry, or if you and a friend want to cost-effectively split one item that will fill you up, have the calzone ($17). Draped by slices of prosciutto, it is mezzaluna (half-moon)-shaped and stuffed with mozzarella, ricotta, and tomato sauce.
Vitale and his crew even make a salad worth eating at a pizzeria. The pollanca ($13) has chopped grilled chicken that manages to stay moist, frisée, radicchio, fennel, cherry tomatoes, celery, apples, raisins, and avocado. He confirmed that it originated at the uptown Mezzaluna as the ultimate "ladies who lunch" salad. Don't let that deter you from ordering the pollanca. In this case the ladies who lunch are on to something.
The salad even comes with a basket of thin, baked-to-order focaccia ($5 if ordered separately) to help you shovel. The focaccia is seasoned with lots of fresh thyme and lots of sea salt.
There are a half dozen pastas on the menu, but we only tried one: the black squid ink pasta with spicy tomato sauce studded with small shrimp ($14). The fresh pasta is made at the Uptown location, and though I wish it was served slightly more al dente, it's a fine bowl of pasta nonetheless.
Vitale even makes a tiramisu ($6.50) worth ordering. It has plenty of strong coffee flavor and is surprisingly light, and Vitale substitutes Plasmon, a sort of Italian teething cracker, for the lady fingers. It sounds strange, I know, but it totally works. Trust me.
There's no mythic, century-old pizza lore emanating from Pizza Mezzaluna. What you will find instead is fine pizza made in a wood-burning oven by an experienced pizzaiolo who really knows his stuff served in uniquely cheerful environs—and no attitude. It's not the best pizza in Manhattan or New York or anywhere else, but it is really good food I would be happy to eat any time.