Totale Pizza (36 St. Mark's Place, East Village)
It's moments like this that I know just how very dearly my closest friends must love me and support my food adventures to a degree far beyond which I could ever have asked. For the blog, I have just dragged Kieran down to the East Village to try a lobster roll over which I have been obsessing for months. We try lobster, crab, shrimp, crab claws, even two types of homemade ice cream and organic sodas all in the name of the blog. With satisfied stomachs, we head back toward Astor Place to catch the subway uptown.
That's when I freeze right in my tracks.
"Is that?" I whisper, as if I've just seen a ghost. "No... it can't be... But... I thought that..."
Kieran looks at my face as if he has read my mind precisely, releases a small moan, and inhales deeply as if employing some internal compactor to make room for just a few more morsels on this steamy June afternoon.
We both rub our eyes, and the mirage doesn't disappear. It most certainly seems as if some doppelganger for the late Una Pizza Napoletana has just manifested itself smack dab in the middle of the skateboard shops, tattoo parlors, record stores, and psychics. There is no sign visible anywhere, other than a chalkboard advertising neapolitan pies. Inside, the chef and server are sipping iced colas at a table, the dining room otherwise entirely barren.
Although we can both still taste lemon butter and oregano from the lobster rolls, it's a flavor that won't likely clash with pizza, so why not? Kieran, having been my number one dining partner at Una Pizza Napoletana (before its transformation into Motorino when the former proprietor moved to San Francisco), smiles, grabs my hand, and guides me in. "Let's do this..." He knows how rare it is for a blogger to stumble upon a restaurant that hasn't been buzzed yet. He also knows that if we don't go today, I'll just make him accompany me tomorrow.
Previously a smoothie shop, the setup inside is remarkably similar to Motorino (the former home of Una Pizza Napoletana). Other than a single vase of sunflowers, there is no decor beyond the black and white tiled floors and walls.
The menu, a single glossy card, even has a similar look to it, as well as the list of offerings. But I quickly notice one dramatically significant difference. A whole pie here is only $7, which seems absurdly low to me, considering the pies at Una Pizza Napoletana soared upwards of $20.
It just so turns out that at the helm of Totale are Eli Halali of 2 Bros. pizza (where you can get a plain slice for $1 or a large pie for $8) and Greg Ryzhkov, former right-hand-man to Anthony Mangieri, legendary tattooed pizzaiolo of Una Pizza Napoletana.
A refreshing marriage of budget pizza and neapolitan tradition, Totale offers gourmet artisan pies at a fraction of the price of its competitors. The same $7 margherita 12-inch pie costs $12 at Kesté, $14 at Motorino, and $17 at Luzzo's, just to name three of the current NYC Neapolitan hotspots. Totale doesn't claim to import ingredients from Italy. They source it from local purveyors, available at a much lower price point. But how does the actual pizza stack up? Is there a clear difference when the toppings aren't sourced from the base of Mt. Vesuvius? Will my palate reject the fraud?
Though I cannot claim to be a cognoscenti of pizza, I have rather enthusiastically tasted more than my fair share. Totale's pie can certainly hold its own against the rest. The sauce is sweet and tangy, drizzled with olive oil, and dotted with creamy dollops of fior di latte mozzarella and a few sprigs of fresh basil. The crust has deliciously charred bits with tiny crunches of salt, and unlike Motorino, remains crispy all the way to the middle of the pie, the crunchy outer crust succumbing to a light and doughy center.
In the artisan tradition, the wood-fired oven holds steady at around 850 degrees. Each pie bakes for around a mere 90 seconds, just enough time for the dough to inhale and warm to life, and the toppings to harmonize into a delicious stained glass of flavors.
GM and pizzaiolo Greg Ryzhkov also features a few oven-roasted appetizers, including an asparagus salad with ricotta and dates. Neapolitan purists will be relieved to know that he also offers a pie with imported mozzarella di bufala for $13 (the highest price on the menu). Ten bucks will get you the signature Totale pie, adorned with pecorino romano, red onions, pine nuts, and rosemary.
A liquor license is in the works, but meanwhile, they offer an array of soft drinks, waters, and espresso, so be sure to BYOB if you want to add spirit to the meal. And while Totale may not receive the official stamp from Naples because it sources American ingredients, what's so wrong a with a little patriotism in your pie? Especially when it tastes this delicious, and comes in at nearly half the price. I would highly recommend visiting Totale during its preview run, before word spreads and lines inevitably form around the block.