'Uni' Pizza Napoletana, Manhattan's $8 Slice
"Uni" Pizza Napoletana. No, that's not a typo. I'm not referring to the dearly departed "Una" Pizza Napoletana, which Anthony Mangieri, after having left my heart broken in New York City, reopened in San Francisco. And I was certainly not referring to Ike Sewell's "Uno" Pizzeria in Chicago, which lays claim to having invented Chicago's deep-dish pizza, which is much loved in that city, but which some pizza purists (like me) think is an abomination. However, like those two pizza genius/inventors, I had for at least 10 years dreamt of a pizza that was so outrageous that I hardly dared mention it to anyone lest they question my very sanity.
My first real sushi omakase was at the venerable Sushi Yasuda and involved at least 40 pieces of sushi, the meal continuing way past Yasuda's hesitantly asking me not once, but twice, "Are you still hungry?" He was less hesitant about presenting me with the more than $300 bill, which I happily paid as I was in sushi nirvana, particularly after sampling and comparing three different kinds of uni (sea urchin), from California, Hokkaido, and even from Russia. Trouble was, I was still hungry after all that. Still hungry and still definitely drunk from pleasure and too much sake, I staggered into the nearest pizzeria. Sushi omakase followed by pizza became as natural to me as the cliché cigarette after sex.
As uni became more ubiquitous throughout New York City and the country, no longer being relegated to sushi connoisseurs, it started showing up in more and more dishes across many culinary borders: uni risotto at Bar Masa, uni crostini with lardo at Marea, uni-stuffed langoustines at Soto, uni butter pasta with caviar at Le Bernardin. So instead of uni sushi followed by searching for the nearest pizzeria to finish my evening, why not just save a step and find a place that would serve uni on the pizza?! As far as I knew, it had never been attempted. A Google search under "uni pizza" only makes reference to my own profile on Chowhound many years ago where I sheepishly asked why it didn't exist, which met with a deafening silence of no responses. Were we about to make pizza (and sushi) history?
Certainly it's been done in Japan. It has to have been done there, right? But were we destined to be remembered for introducing New York City to something as great as Anthony Mangieri's authentic, but original Neapolitan-style pizza? Or were we to be remembered like Ike Sewell for creating a pizza abomination? Getting to an age where I have to start thinking about my own bucket list, I had to find out.
At Eataly, I met my editor from The Daily Meal Arthur Bovino, the only person who would humor me. The retail raw seafood stall offers whole wooden trays of uni, just as I've always watched the sushi chefs dole out their uni from, for $22 apiece. One tray looked different — holding much larger and firmer pieces of uni. The sign confirmed it was California gold: uni from Santa Barbara (who must have been the patron saint of sea urchins). I pointed. "That tray is twice the size, $44," I was advised. Gold indeed. Sold.
We took the tray around the corner to Eataly's Rossopomodoro Pizzeria looking for a worthy pizza to be adorned by our precious purchase. After being told it was a 30-minute wait and they no longer did takeout, we left Eataly with our uni tray and began to wonder whether ordinary pizza would suffice. Sensing my dejection, Arthur suggested Zero Otto Nove, the Bronx Arthur Avenue spin-off two blocks south of Eataly on 21st Street, which makes some of the best Neapolitan-style pizza in the city. We ordered two margherita pies on the way so they'd be waiting for us.
Creamy fresh mozzarella on wood-oven blistered dough with San Marzano tomato sauce and basil. The Italian flag-colored pizza was beautiful, but would it remain so after being violated by a topping usually reserved for vinegar rice enrobed in seaweed? We carefully spooned the urchin gonads on the pie in a symmetrical pattern so as not to disturb anyone (except for the bartender at Zero Otto who was now regarding us as demented and was likely considering calling the cops if not the Verace Pizza Napoletana Association, the one responsible for prosecuting crimes against pizza).
The heat from the pizza radiated through the uni, rendering the urchin roe slightly creamy. It then began to run together with the moisture seeping out from the mozzarella and the tomato sauce. The hazelnut color of the uni worked its way throughout the pizza. Folding a slice brought all the colors and the flavors together.
And the taste? Let's just say I was going to need a cigarette afterwards. Seriously though, great pizza is the perfect palette for the finest ingredients and uni pizza is no exception. The slightly briny seafood flavor of the urchin melded naturally with the acidity of the tomatoes and the sweet creaminess of the cheese.
How could we let the world know of our discovery? Now that $1 slice joints have proliferated as quickly as the economy has deteriorated, I wonder if New York City and the world is ready for a chain of Uni Pizzerias? Only problem is that after being rejected by my editor for expense reimbursements, I'm not sure about a business model where I'd have to charge at least $8 per slice.