36 St. Mark's Place, New York, NY 10003 (b/n Second and Third Aves; map); 212-254-0180; totalepizza.com
Service: Hard to say. There was no one else in there when we went
Setting: 20-seat dining room with a classic pizzeria look
Must-Haves: Asparagus and ricotta cheese appetizer, "Totale" pizza
Cost: Pizzas top out at $13
Grade: Incomplete: the pizza we had was an A-, but it's hard to predict what you might encounter
If there's one thing that's been hammered into every serious eater's brain, it's that good food is made with good ingredients—and that since good ingredients invariably cost more money, the resulting food will be expensive. Or, at the very least, more expensive than an everyday version of that same food.
Exhibit A? Pizza. The pizza I regard as paradigmatic comes out of the ovens of Pizzeria Bianco (Phoenix), Motorino (Manhattan and Brooklyn), and the dearly departed Una Pizza Napoletana (come back soon, Anthony). The pizza that comes out of these ovens is phenomenal, but, we won't deny, a lot more expensive than chain pizza, or even run-of-the-mill independent pizzerias.
So when I read that Una Pizza Napoletana alumnus Gregory Ryzhkov was opening a wood-burning oven pizzeria on St. Mark's Place with Eli Halali (co-owner of the dollar pizza joint 2 Bros. right down the street), I was fascinated by the very idea of what Grub Street accurately called Totale's "mongrel lineage." After all, it was the ultimate clash of pizza cultures—generic, cheap pizza by the slice colliding with the individual handmade artisanal pizza culture personified by Bianco, Motorino's Palombino, and UPN's Mangieri.
And when I read that Ryzhkov was selling a 12-inch Neapolitan-style pie for as little as $7, I knew I had to hightail it to the East Village to see which partner was going to set the pizza agenda at Totale.
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We wandered over to the simple storefront with the classic black-and-white tiled, pizzeria-as-bathroom motif. It was a stiflingly hot June afternoon, and Totale wasn't air-conditioned. Serious eaters, we have a problem—and so might the pizza. Pizzas are like human beings. They like to be surrounded by cool, dry air.
To make matters worse, Ryzhkov, manning both the oven and the tiny dining room all by his lonesome, told us he wasn't even open for lunch that day, that the oven wasn't hot enough yet—circumstances beyond his control.
We asked him how long we would have to wait for pizza. Half an hour, we were told. We decided to wait it out, knowing full well we would be getting a steam bath fully clothed in the interim. I was not feeling optimistic at that moment—but my fears were quelled by the food that really did start to appear a half hour after we sat down.
The first thing to come out of the oven were some pencil-thin local asparagus with a little pile of fresh ricotta beneath them. Simple, delicious, and worth their seven dollar price tag. A simple Greenmarket-sourced arugula and parmigiana salad was similarly tasty and fresh and even more of a bargain ($5).
There are only six pies on Totale's menu, all squarely in the UPN tradition; sourdough crust, nicely charred, and cloud-light, though perhaps a little breadier and heavier and wetter than Anthony Mangieri's pies. The simple crust on the Pizza Marinara ($7, pictured above) had the least amount of rise, but it was the perfect starter pizza. Consider it your appetizer pie. The Margherita ($9) was a little wetter than Mangieri's. In fact, with its soupy center, it was more authentically Neapolitan than any other Totale pie.
Olives elevated the Bianca (made with mozzarella and ricotta cheeses, $11) and gave it a much-needed bit of meatiness. The Prosciutto and Rucola pie ($11) had the same arugula from the salad; it was draped with slices of proscuitto, which Ryzhkov seemed to run down the street to fetch after we ordered this pizza.
So many artisanal pizzerias around the country pay homage to Bianco's transcendent (and original) Rosa pie, made with red onion, Arizona pistachios, Parmigiano Reggiano, and fresh rosemary; Ryzhkov's version, which he calls the Totale ($10), is most certainly his best pizza. He substitutes Pecorino Romano for the Reggiano, and pine nuts for the pistachios, with stupendous results. The Totale is the one must-order pie at Totale.
So what should serious eaters make of Totale? I have no idea if Totale is going to make it. I'm not sure if Ryzhkov knows how to run a successful business with or without Halali—and let's face, it they are strange pizzafellows. The location—the skeevy stretch of St. Mark's between Second and Third—might not help, either.
But we should be rooting for the two pizza mongrels to figure it out. Because if they do, New York will have a bargain artisanal pizzeria shouting about—and in these economic hard times we need all the seriously delicious bargains we can get.
Update: Totale's pizzas in fact are 12" in diameter, and not 10" as I first reported. Totale co-owner Eli Halali also wanted everyone to know that the air conditioning is now working.