I know most of you already know this, but to some, it may come as a bit of a culture shock. Olive Garden is not Italian cuisine. I’m a quarter Italian. Keepitcoming is half. True to my blasphemous self, I’m admittedly quite happy when I’m noshing on pasta laden with thirty kinds of cheeses or a thick piece of reheated pizza oozing with oil, but Miss Love is harder to please. When Birra Moretti offered us the chance to enjoy pizza and beer in Manhattan, we couldn’t help but oblige. We chose a small cafe on the Upper East Side, San Matteo Panuozzo, a squat cafe filled with wine bottles, speakers blaring Raphael Gualazzi (Italy’s answer to Michael Buble) and housing a massive wood-fire pizza oven in the back- no small feat for a restaurant the size of your average Manhattan studio. Owned by brothers Ciro and Fabio Casella, the restaurant is just over a year old.
In the vast, dense world of New York pizza, I can proudly say this is some of the tastiest I’ve had the pleasure to sample. Then again, I’m a Connecticut native, so take my words at face value. But I’ve traveled around Italy, and eating this brought back memories of the flat, fragrant, chewy pizzettes offered in cafes all around the country. This is definitely the closest to authentic Italian pizza I’ve had since voyaging abroad, where the toppings are applied in an almost scientific sense, in moderate and careful doses across the dough- a personal favorite with a charred, chewy crust and moist interior. Despite taking a back seat to the restaurant’s signature specialty, the panuozzo, the pizzas are not to be ignored. We tried two, the Arechi, with roasted butternut squash and smoked buffalo mozzarella, and the Salsiccia e Friarielli with broccoli rabe, Italian sausage, and mozzarella made fresh daily by Fabio himself. Each pizza carried an ample amount of toppings, yet not so much that the crust was overwhelmed, and was crispy and charred on the undercarriage, a cross between my beloved New Haven pizza and the soft Manhattan slices, and were cut into four pieces. Personally, I found these a hair too large and deceptively filling, but hearty and rustic to behold.
We ate all of these with Birra Moretti, an Italian pale lager dating back to 1859. For me, an ever-ambivalent beer taster, this was a fantastic choice to pair with our pizzas. It transitioned seamlessly from the smoky pizza to the sweet, rich panuozzo, with a strong, forward flavor and a clean finish. And with that, I have exhausted my knowledge and capacity to describe beer.
Of these two pizzas, we were smitten with the Arechi, with its host of comforting, autumnal flavors. I was initially afraid that this would be a drier pizza with chunks of cheese and pieces of squash scattered haphazardly, but the comingling of flavors was so much more complex than that. Acting in lieu of sauce, the squash was pureed on top, absorbing a dual layer of charred smokiness from the natural smoke in the cheese and the crispy crust below, with rich natural sugars from the vegetable and a sweet, underlying smokiness. The cheese provided even more meaty flavor, with a creamy texture and stringy consistency. Speaking as a self-proclaimed meatatarian, I’d give up pepperoni for this any day of the week. It executed the perfect combination of flavors typically associated with the season of fall and left a lingering, sweet flavor in the mouth long after each bite.
Our second pizza was a more classic favorite, sausage and broccoli rabe. Compared to the slew of flavors represented in the Arechi, this was a more understated and seemed to lack the delicate balance of proportions of the former. The homemade mozzarella was an absolute joy to eat, with a creamy, firm texture and a slight salinity. This was a good pizza, but didn’t strike me as artful as the first. There were a few textural components that didn’t seem to work as well with the crisp crust- the broccoli rabe was plentiful, yet exuded a significant amount of moisture that soaked through the crust. The sausage was also tender, yet moist, which contributed to the somewhat slippery nature of the slices. The flavor was tasty, with the earthy, bitter greens cutting through the spices in the sausage, but was subdued overall, and left us longing for a small shake of red pepper flakes or a few slices of hot pepperocini to remove some of the flatness.
We also had the pleasure to sample one of San Matteo’s flagship entrees, a pork panuozzo. The panuozzo is a sandwich native to the town of Gragnano, near Napoli, and is a beautifully executed cross between a plump panino and a calzone
, made from a loaf of fresh pizza dough quickly baked in their pizza oven, whisked out immediately after cooking, and stuffed with fresh toppings. Ours included house-roasted pork, more homemade mozzarella, and arugula microgreens.
This is no ordinary sandwich. For starters, it weighs about three pounds and contains roughly four regular sandwiches’ worth of filling
. The pork slices are massive and put Boar’s Head to shame, with a thick, tender middle and addictively crispy strings of skin curling around the outside of each piece
. The tender greens added an element of crispy bitterness to the sandwich and the mozzarella bound the entire sandwich together around the crispy, fluffy sandwich dough. What a phenomenal thing to eat.
We each finished one of the four slices and took the rest home. Speaking from the point of view of the person who ate the remaining two slices for both lunch and dinner yesterday, this panuozzo got better each time I bit into a thick, savory slice. If I had my druthers and my stocks tied up in Hathaway A, I’d have one of these shipped in every day for lunch.
We ended our meal with two fresh cheeses imported from Italy and a delicious espresso. Fabio, who also works as an Italian foods importer, assured us that these cheeses, a fresh ricotta and burrata, were as fresh as we could get. Nobody doubted him. The burrata released a creamy midsection out of a firm outer shell of chewy cheese with a salty, creamy flavor and a tender consistency. The ricotta stole the show, though, molded and densely packed into an upright shape far different from its wet, calzone-filled counterpart. This ricotta was our favorite, and with its light, crumbly texture, made a tempting proposition as a stand-alone meal spread atop our pizza crusts. After, we were simply too full to partake in any additional confection, but if a treat had been offered with this ricotta as a key component, I would have found some room in my stomach.
With a traditional espresso bidding us farewell into the balmy night, we left San Matteo Panuozzo with full stomachs and beaming smiles, dreaming of the leftovers of the present and dinners of the future. Again, I know I’m not the be all, end all word on New York pizza, but trust me on this one, this is the place to go when you want to feel like you’re eating in a gentler, kinder city. It doesn’t get friendlier or more intimate than this.