I thought I knew good pizza until I ate a margherita at L’Antica Pizzzeria Da Michele in Naples 10 years ago. After waiting outside the small shop for 30 minutes, I was finally seated at a shared marble table, luckily, right in front of the blazing pizza oven where I witnessed the whole process: The set-up cook pressing each soft, puffy dough onto a peel, ladling it with marinara, blanketing it with shredded fior de latte mozzarella, and splashing the top with olive oil from a spigoted bronze pitcher.
Then the baker slid it into the oven, cooked it for three minutes, turning occasionally, and at the last second, threw a handful of wood shavings onto the fire, which made it flare and lick the pizza with flames.
The steaming pizza, pooled with melted mozzarella, scented with fire, was rushed to the marble tables (they used to be served directly on the the tables but now go on huge flat plates) where the customers cut them into wedges, folded the triangles in half and ate the slices out of hand.
I had never tasted any better piece of food. An 18-inch pizza cost $3, and everyone gobbled up a whole one.
Now Anthony Mangieri, a fanatically dedicated young pizza maker from New Jersey with Neapolitan roots, has opened his own authentic Naples-style pizzeria, Una Pizza Napoletana, in San Francisco. His small, newly built SoMa pizzeria with a soaring ceiling is an austere temple to pizza, with a glowing pizza oven altar at the center attended by a pizza-making priest who sets all the rituals.
In the Mangieri church, the soft, pouffy pizza dough — slowly leavened with a sourdough mother, not yeast — produces an airy, playfully elastic, yet mysteriously tender crust of vivacious flavor: salty, wheaty, smoky, sweet.
Each bite is different, changing as you chew. This pizza is all about transformation, about texture.
The margherita, with a judicious circle of marinara, puddling chunks of buffalo milk mozzarella flown in from Italy, basil leaves, sea salt and extra virgin olive oil, is the most integrated.
The fire is part of the flavor. We’re programmed here in America to want more — more topping, more extras, red chile flakes, parmesan, salt — but Mangieri’s spare margherita is perfect, complete. You only want another bite.
The Filetti has no tomato sauce but halved cherry tomatoes and a whisper of garlic. You taste the components but they meld engagingly.
It took me three visits to get the elusive Ilaria, with delicately smoked buffalo mozzarella from Campania, cherry tomatoes and arugula scattered on at the end. Though mild, the smokiness of the cheese intruded.
The 12-inch pizzas cost $20. There is nothing else on the menu except wines from Campania.
I suggest coming in early before 7 p.m., to avoid the worst of the crowd, but don’t think you’ve got it made once you’re seated at one of the granite tables huddled on one side of the oven.
Life moves slowly here, dictated by the pace of Mangieri, who crawls along, working alone, baking only three pizzas in the oven at a time.
But all the waiting gives the experience weight, forcing you to appreciate the preciousness of this pure, ideological food. You have dined. As you leave, you ponder when you can get back.
Patricia Unterman is the author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at email@example.com.
Location: 210 11th St. (at Howard Street), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 861-3444; www.unapizza.com
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, or until dough runs out
Price range: $20
Credit cards: MasterCard and Visa
Reservations: Not accepted