“Making pizza isn’t hard. It’s making good pizza that’s difficult,” chef Michael White told me at his new pizza joint Nicoletta which opened last Friday on the Lower East Side. So many places in the city simply reheat their pizza, White said, where as he hopes to capitalize on quality, bringing fresh, made-to-order pizza to every table.
Last night, two of my closest college friends and I reunited after months and months apart, and the reunion spot of choice was Nicoletta. As curious pizza consumers, and loyal White supporters (Osteria Morini is to die for!), my friend Laila and I set the date for a night of expanding waistlines and full wine glasses. Our invite extended to our friend, JB, who didn’t dare refuse the offer. He was particularly willing to help us with a liter of house wine, and another half thereafter.
As we caught up on jobs, relationships, dates gone awry, new apartments and reminisced (good ol’ college memories), we were served as seamlessly as if the restaurant were open for years, not days. The waitstaff was friendly and knowledgeable, and confirmed what we read in reviews, that the more popular of the pizzas was the Calabrese, topped with fennel sausage, pepperoni, red onion, and White’s robust tomato sauce. We ordered this (doesn’t the description just make your mouth water?) and the Fior di Zucca, with zucchini blossoms, ricotta, basil pesto and Parmigiano– a great compliment to the meaty Calabrese.
The pizzas arrived not long after ordering– both timed to precision. The server brought them out and slid the boards onto elevated trays stuck in the slot in our table, meant to stack multiple pies. Even this is such a smart subtlety, likely engineered to avoid infringing on space since our calamari starter and wine carafes were already mainstays on the table. In a relatively small restaurant (there are 58 seats), conserving space is important– especially in Manhattan. White points out they didn’t decorate much, as he highlights the empty brick walls. “It allows for more tables,” he says strategically.
White may be new to the New York pizza scene, but he is certainly no amateur. “We’ve been working on this for 18 months,” White says, conveying a sense of relief that the doors are finally open. Like a proud father, he stops by our table inquiring how we enjoyed our meal and answers any and all our questions. When I ask about how important the oven is, he says “Very,” and leads us to the back to show us the wood burning stoves.
If it sounds like I’m dwelling on the experience or atmosphere, it’s because it was as enjoyable as the food itself. Although likely not always in house, White makes you feel like you’re a guest at his private residence. He willingly took a picture with my friend and I and sent over a special dessert, his treat. “Have you ever had Fanta?” he asked. He set down a Fanta float– Fanta soda with gelato on top with two straws. Then as we jokingly asked him to do the Fanta dance (don’t you wanna wanna Fanta, don’t ya wanna), he playfully danced away from our table.
Okay, so about the pizza. The crust is dusted with cornmeal on the bottom and cooked to perfection. It’s probably a quarter inch thick, yet crispy and supportive enough to hold the toppings, which are another highlight of White’s product. Choose from ten gourmet pies and they won’t disappoint. The ingredients taste as if shipped that morning and the dough, all homemade, passed the Goldie Locks test: Not too thick, not too thin, not too doughy, but just right. As I bit into the final pieces of outer crust, a light coat of oil maintained the flavor even after the toppings were gone.
From the Fanta float to the pizza dough (ingredients are shipped from his hometown in the Midwest), Michael White has created a pizzeria which will become not only a neighborhood staple but a major competitor in a city known for its pizza.
Our table reached an unanimous conclusion: It was some of the best pizza we had ever had. Even the gelato left me candidly in awe as I told JB, “If sex had a taste, it would taste like this!”