This is not a restaurant review!
This is a selfish blog posting about being on my own little pizza quest and running into one of the masters in the world of artisan pizza. I had been trying all week, while I was working in NYC a while back, to fit in some pizza questing and I had the opportunity to visit one of New York's newest ventures.
Don Antonio by Starita opened recently and is getting some rave reviews and, now I know, that's for good reason. It's a new venture by Pizzeria Keste owner, Roberto Caporuscio, and Antonio Starita, who owns one of Naples' most famous pizzerias, called Pizzeria Starita, which is 110 years old (the pizzeria, not Antonio). I have been a personal fan of Roberto's for some time having visited Keste on nearly every one of my visits to New York since it opened. His pizzas have not only pushed beyond good to great, but very well may have reached a new level in my book. They are what Peter Reinhart calls "Memorable," here at Pizza Quest. Memorable is something more than just "great". If you remember a very good pizza you had, you can describe it and even imagine the taste. But, a memorable pizza is one that goes one or more steps further and makes sort of a time stamp in your mind and is experienced and remembered on a totally different level. You can seemingly taste and almost experience it again as you recall it. I don't mean to gush, but that's just what I feel about Keste. Roberto's dough and crust is that good.
Now back to me…my window opened and opportunity called! I had time to escape the office for lunch; I bolted for the door. I took the subway, which popped me up only a block or so from Don Antonio. I went in and sat at the bar for lunch. I had a limited amount of time and knew that, while here, I had to try the signature pizza called the "Montanara Starita" which is made with a lightly fried pizza dough. Scott Weiner, of Scott's Pizza Tours, had told me that if I only had time for one pizza there that I had to try that one.
I asked the bartender if Roberto happened to be in today. Unfortunately, he wasn't. I ordered a salad and my Monatanara. As I ate my salad, I overheard someone say "Roberto!" After a few minutes I asked the bartender again and as it turns out Roberto was there (what am I, chopped liver?). When his conversation wrapped up behind me, I introduced myself and was lucky enough that either Pizza Quest, or Peter Reinhart's name got me into a conversation and,, later, back into the kitchen! I was about halfway through my Montanara when Roberto came to sit with me. We talked about, what else, pizza. I went on a bit about how much I liked Keste and enjoyed the fact that I was eating a pizza with him.
He asked me back to the kitchen to meet his daughter Georgia, who was the pizzaiola working the oven. We talked bit more back there with his staff and Georgia took me over to watch her make a Montanara pizza. It's simple. Spread the dough and drop it in the fryer. It sits in there for a few minutes. She would touch it here and there, pushing one side, or the other under the oil as it floated to the top and turned it a couple of times before pulling it out to drain a little before she topped it. At this point it's prepped like any other pizza. Add the sauce. Add the Cheese and some basil and it goes into the oven.
As I was about to leave Roberto asked me how I found the Montanara. As I began to tell him, I referenced how I first found Keste's dough, he misunderstood me and thought I was trying to tell him how I got to Don Antonio! I said, "No, no! I understand!" We then discussed the pizza. I had the feeling he was really interested to know what I thought about it, not because I was an expert or anything, but because it was something "new". When I was at the Pizza Expo in Las Vegas months earlier, there was all sorts of chatter about fried dough being the next rage. I think Roberto was, and is, curious about this new trend, one that is apparently not new at all. It's just newly in fashion.
So, how did I find the Montanara - fried pizza? It was my first fried pizza, to be certain, and I honestly didn't know what to expect. I found the Montanara to be a unique pizza experience. The dough was lighter than I thought it would be. It was puffy and crunchy, but still soft. The tomatoes were bright and the sweet acidity worked well with and against the dough, which had a buttery quality to it due to the frying. The pizza was rich, but balanced. The smoked buffalo mozzarella was delicious and there to be tasted, but wasn't overwhelming or in a competition with the tomatoes and dough. Then there was the fresh basil which came in with a nice aromatic finish to this ensemble.
I found this pizza interesting. Okay, I found this pizza to be delicious! But most importantly, I found this experience of getting to eat this pizza with Roberto, and watch Georgia making one while standing with us in the kitchen by the wood burning oven, well, I found it memorable. Maybe "memorable" is about more than just great food. Maybe memorable is about great food, plus good people, a unique experience, and maybe even simply great timing!
I'm still haunted by Roberto's traditional wood oven baked doughs, but was happily surprised by this "new" variation of an old deep-fried classic!