Pete Wells Doesn't Know Cheese About Pizza
Did the highly influential New York Times restaurant critic go to the same Nicoletta I did?
Keywords Pizza, Frank Pepe, Modern Apizza, Nicoletta, Sally's, Michel White
I know a little bit about pizza. I've written about Neopolitan vs. Metropolitan; New York style pizza vs.deep dish Chicago style; the history of pizza; square vs. round; Brooklyn vs. Queens vs. Bronx vs. Manhattan vs. Staten Island pizza; New Haven, Conn. pizza; Rhode Island grilled pizza; Old Forge, Penn. the self-proclaimed pizza capital of the world; taken pizza tours with Scott Wiener; attended lectures by Pizza: A Slice of Heaven author Ed Levine; had my photo taken by Slice pizza blog founder Adam Kuban and sampled every pizzeria I could within a 500 mile radius of New York City. So, yeah, I think I know a little bit about pizza.
This past Sunday I stopped in New Haven for a pepperoni and sausage pie at Modern Apizza, part of the holy trinity of New Haven (Heaven?) pizza comprised of Sally's, Pepe's and Modern. That did not dissuade me from having the Calabrese pizza at Michael White's new East Village pizzeria Nicoletta on Monday, which is essentially a pepperoni and sausage pie.
Before I give my review of Nicoletta, I was surprised to see Pete Wells, the man who gets paid for what I love to do in my spare time, review Nicoletta in today's New York Times Dining section. Pete Wells, the man who has lavished multiple stars (I think deservedly so) on casual eateries including my beloved Parm, Hill Country and IL Buco. So imagine my shock when Wells dropped the big fat goose egg, the donut, i. e. Zero stars on Nicoletta. This raises a huge question in my mind. Nobody's saying that Wells should be likened to the dreaded infamous GQ critic Alan "d%&chebag" Richman who's been accused of having an agenda other than reviewing the food, but does the guy know anything about pizza? I checked Pete's most recent pizza related review. I agreed with him when he said that New York may not be the place to experiment with fried Neopolitan pizza such as that featured at Forcella and Starita. You may recall I called Forcella's fried montanara "zeppole pizza" at its pre-opening. Wells summed up his review by declaring that fried stuff belongs in Wisconsin, not NYC.
With the New Haven pie still working its way through my system, I, too, was highly suspicious of Nicoletta. I am a huge admirer of Michael White having dined often at Marea, Ai Fiori, Morini and his past restaurants. But what did he know about making pizza? Perhaps due to the need to compare with the heavenly New Haven pie or perhaps simply due to my love of pork on pork, I chose Nicoletta's Calabrese pie of "thick cut" pepperoni and fennel sausage (hold the red onions). Though you'd never know it from his Italian culinary artistry, Michael White is a Wisconsin boy, born and bred. Nicoletta is his homage to his childhood pizza. As I watched the pizza being prepared, I became even more suspect.
If I had Pete Wells' cushy job I'd be thinking to myself: Wisconsin style-oh oh (minus one star), thick crust bordering on Chicago style (minus one star), gas oven (minus one star), parsley last minute add on (minus one star) = goose egg. I took the pizza outside, laid the box open on the stoop next door to the restaurant and dug in. The pepperoni was delicious and more thickly cut than any I've had before forming octopus-like suction cups completely covering the pie (plus one star). The cheese was aged fior di latte (probably from good 'ole Wisconsin) which I prefer to the fresh di bufala favored by Neopolitan purists (plus one star). The dough was average with a bit of a thick lip, though probably necessary to hold the bountiful ingredients on a pie that I could not completely finish by myself which means it would easily feed 4 normal people (minus one star). Finally, the fennel sausage, though hidden underneath the cheese, was outstanding. Huge hand torn chunks with incredible amounts of fennel which I picked the entire pizza clean of before disposing of the leftovers (plus one star). While not revolutionary nor a threat to DiFara's, John's, Patsy's or New Haven, Nicoletta scores a solid 2 stars with me utilizing Pete's own star system.
So did Wells want to cause a stir by trashing a top chef who had the guts to try a different kind of pizza in NYC? Is Wells taking tips from his buddy Alan Richman? Is Wells just anti-Wisconsin? Try a pie at Nicoletta and you decide.