When one of the country’s best and most successful Italian chefs decided to open a pizzeria, he did so just few blocks from Motorino, one of New York’s best and most successful pizzerias. Bold move.
Michael White, a six-foot-four-inch Wisconsin native who played offensive tackle as a high school footballer, clearly wants to rack up a few sacks with Nicoletta in Manhattan’s East Village.
This is the cheapest member of White’s New York empire, which includes Marea ($97 for four courses), Ai Fiori ($89 prix-fixe) and Morini (most mains under $30).
At Nicoletta, Dr. Dre raps uncensored, the entrees run $16 to $22, every single one of them pizza.
And contrary to New York’s neoclassic zeitgeist, none is Neapolitan. So no brick ovens, no paper-thin crusts, no unadulterated San Marzano tomatoes, no milky mozzarella di bufala unless you ask for it.
Nicoletta’s pies are “Wiscopolitan,” with zesty red sauces, dense crusts and enough cheese, toppings and mashed potatoes to make your biceps sore. And in case your stomach feels deprived of anything (it won’t), extra sauce is free.
White is expanding his Morini brand and Nicoletta, with its simple preparations, seems scalable enough as well. Here’s the catch: Morini is a decent enough restaurant. Nicoletta isn’t.
Okay, okay. Pizza-making isn’t easy for the even the most highly-trained gastronauts. When Mathieu Palombino, once the chef de cuisine at BLT Fish, opened his first Motorino, he told me pizza was one of the most difficult dishes he’d ever worked with.
Still, smart young pizzaioli don’t serve carbonara pies like White does; his $19 gut-buster is laden with egg, cream, pancetta, Pecorino Romano and what is surely enough salt to cause a killer hangover without a drop of alcohol.
Perhaps Nicoletta needs time to grow. The best dish on the menu is “pollo all’aceto.” White should change the name to “buffalo wings.” Chicken thighs are confited, fried and doused in Calabrian chili sauce -- a dead ringer for the spicy vinegar tang of Frank’s RedHot.
Romaine salad, with briny anchovies and bright dressing, is lovely. Seafood salad is not. The clams, mussels and octopus taste more like marinated Styrofoam than aromatic shellfish. Stuffed squid had such a low-tide stink that I advised my companions to stop eating it.
Rice balls ($5) have little texture and, improbably, less flavor. Fried mozzarella ($11) is even worse: expect watery curds, soggy dough and a yellow sauce that’s bagna cauda in name only.
Service is quite good for such an ultra-casual venue, though you may wait 90 minutes for a table. You might be offered a taste of the sweet, bubbly lambrusco ($8) before committing to a glass. When was the last time this happened at a pizzeria? Too bad the stemless glasses have thick lips and small rims, even for the $75-$300 reserve selections.
No matter; a glass of restrained Valpolicella ($8.50) or a pint of white Wisconsin ale ($7) are the better options.
Nicoletta does toppings right. Fennel sausage is clean and herbal. Rosemary infused porchetta is ultra-porky.
The scallions have snap and the pepperoni is perfect. Even the mashed potatoes, with bacon and creme fraiche, work together as a smoky, gloppy riff on a tarte alsacienne.
Too bad the pizzas have three fatal flaws. First: Nicoletta’s mozzarella lacks milkiness and tastes like a pre-shredded soy cheese-substitute fresh out of a plastic bag.
Second: The bread is chewy and insubstantial, with no depth of flavor. Third: the combined weight of the cheese, sauce, and toppings make the pies taste more like an exercise in Sbarro- style excess rather than Michelin-worthy balance.
A server places the inevitable leftovers in front of you, leaving little space on the table for dessert, an affogato ($6) with two plastic straws for three guests. White can do much, much better.
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: All dishes $22 or under.
Sound Level: Average, around 75 decibels.
Date Place: Nah.
Inside Tip: Walk-ins only, but no waits in the early and late hours. Take-out available too.
Special Feature: Soft, cheesy, porky meatballs ($10).
Back on My Own Dime: No.
Nicoletta is at 160 Second Avenue. Information: +1-212-432-1600 or http://www.nicolettanyc.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Greg Evans on movies and James Pressley on books.