309 West 50th Street New York, NY 10019 (between 8th and 9th; map); 646-719-1043 donantoniopizza.com
Service: Very quick, but likes to schmooze.
Setting: Brightly lit, clean, modern.
Must-Haves: Montanara Starita, any pizza, burrata
Cost:Appetizers $1 to $16, pizzas $9 to $23.
If you follow Slice at all, you'll have heard of Don Antonio, the newest venture by Kesté's Roberto Caporuscio. This time around he's teamed up with his mentor, Antonio Starita, one of the big dogs in Naples' pizza scene.
It's a bold move opening a Neapolitan pizza joint in midtown where dollar slice joints thrive, while other recently opened Neapolitan ventures like Casa Nonna remain painfully empty even on a Friday night.
Luckily, Roberto brings not only his Kesté reputation and Starita pedigree with him, but a handful of never-seen-before techniques to the table as well, making Don Antonio not just a neighborhood pizzeria, but a full-on destination joint.
Yeah, they've got the same awesome crust, great sweet-fresh tomato sauce, and homemade cheese that make Kesté's pies so good, but the real draw here is what they're doing with the fryer.
A quick sampler of the fried pies to come, the Montanarine and Montanarine Genovese ($1, $2) are perfect little appetizers; balls of poofy, crispy dough topped with either their bright tomato sauce or a cooked mixture of onions and pancetta. Both get a sprinkling of Pecorino Romano. There aren't many types of fried dough I'd turn down, but there aren't many I'd actively seek out either. This version, which has all the complex sour, yeasty aromas of great bread, is the latter.
I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that at the very least in terms of texture, the homemade mozzarella and burrata at Don Antonio are the best in the city. They both have the perfectly creamy, never rubbery texture that only comes from taking no shortcuts with the kneading and stretching. The burrata, which comes served with a few slices of prosciutto, is a share-ably sized sack filled with creamy curds that ooze delightfully when you cut into it.
Don Antonio's salads are simple, lightly dressed, well balanced, and fresh, which is usually what I'm craving before I know I'm going to get into a serious pizza session. The Insalata Rustica ($10) with artichokes, olives, and prosciutto is one of the more significant, though for $13, you can get it stuffed into a pizza crust instead to make a meal out of it.
How can you turn down a potato and mozzarella-filled Croquette ($2.50) or some perfectly creamy Arancini ($2.50)? It's not that hard when there are Fritattini ($3 each) on the menu, fried balls of cheesy pasta with ham—like what a more tasteful, more Italian Paula Deen would make.
On one visit, our table was split on the Noci e Porcini ($23), an interesting pie that combines walnut cream with porcini mushrooms. It's an intensely earthy mixture that takes getting used to, particularly if you're looking for something gooey and stretchy on your pie (the only cheese here is pecorino), but as the Rosa at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix proves, nuts and pizza can go together in a good way.
Not all toppings work out. Even the fantastic smoked mozzarella and bittersweet rapini can't save the dry, flavorless sausage employed in the Salciccia e Friarielli ($18) and a few other pies. But flubs like that are few and far between, and whatever's on top, there's always that crust.
The most talked-about dishes at Don Antonio come from the fryer, and rightfully so, as they're pretty universally awesome.
A handful of Pizze Fritte are more similar to stuffed buns or calzones than the flat pies we're used to, but that makes them no less delicious.
As for the true Calzone ($17) on the menu, a massive pocket of fried dough stuffed with escarole braised down to a savory, juicy, bitter stew studded with pine nuts, olives, and anchovies—pardon me—it ain't your grandma's calzone.
And yes, that's right: deep fried calzone. Let that sink in for a moment, then eat it fast, as the undercarriage started to soften from leaky juices within minutes of arriving at the table.
The Montanara Starita ($12) is a pie so special that it gets its own section on the menu (along with thousands and thousands of pages of digital ink, and counting). Don Antonio's great dough is deep fried, then topped with smoked buffalo mozzarella and fresh tomatoes, and finished off in their wood oven. It's not greasy in the slightest, coming off more as simply an extra-crisp pizza.
You can peep a video of how it's made here:
Or learn how to do it yourself here.
The pace at Don Antonio is fast, though I've never felt rushed. In typical Italian fashion, you can sit and schmooze with waiters and other customers and you won't be kicked off your table (though you might want to keep ordering wine).
If talking ain't your thing, you can watch the pie-men on the widescreen TV showing non-stop live footage of the pizza-construction zone, flinging dough and topping pies at Formula-1 rates. Look away for a moment and your pie is liable to already be topped and in the oven, arriving two minutes later on your table, the charred leopard-spots still crackling and erupting with steam puffs, like miniature geysers warning you of the awesomeness that lies within the crust.
It wasn't clear to me if you're supposed to eat the lemon slices along with the smoked buffalo mozzarella in the Sorrentina ($20, I peeled mine off), but it was one of my favorite pies, highlighting the quality of the dough with just two carefully selected and well-balanced ingredients. This is what simple Italian cooking is about.
Take the basic margherita and replace the Pecorino Romano's sharp nuttiness with the meaty heat of hot sopressata, and you've got the Diavola ($15), a pie worth reckoning with. Check out that great spotting on the crust (which has been consistently stellar every time I've been). My only complaint would be slightly under-melted mozzarella, which I've seen more than once. Perhaps that creamy house-made stuff is going on a bit too cold?
Don Antonio might be steeped in tradition, but it tries to keep up with the times, even offering a few gluten-free options for $16 to $19 per pie. The crust is predictably mediocre, with that gummy chew gluten-free bread always has, but when taken in consideration with the other ingredients as a whole, it makes a perfectly acceptable base.
I loved their Ricotta and Almond-topped dessert pie ($6), which, with a drizzle of honey, straddled the line between sweet and savory nicely. It's a good alternative if you don't want to go all out with their sweet, intensely creamy Tiramisu ($6). The ratio of mascarpone to lady fingers is decidedly in the cheese's favor.
If you haven't had your share of fried dough by the end of the meal, you can go in for one last blast in the form of little squiggles drizzled with spoonfuls of melted Nutella ($7). It's a cheap move by Don Antonio, but a wine and pizza coma can make us pretty easy.
Italian pizza makers have a reputation of taking themselves too seriously, and rightfully so. I mean, there are entire organizations devoted to ensuring that Italian pizza makers do take themselves seriously. What I find charming about Don Antonio is that while all the essentials are in place—the great crust, the fast cooking oven, perfect sauce and handmade cheese—there's still a sense of fun, a tongue-in-cheek attitude about it all. It's the kind of nod and wink you get when a plate of fried dough with Nutella is delivered to your table, or when Roberto makes his nightly rounds of the tables, talking with guests, chatting up waiters, and all the while with a smile that seems to say, "relax, it's only pizza."