The Rise of Pizza Icon Anthony Mangieri

After his journey from Jersey Shore baker to internationally acclaimed chef, the famed pizzaiolo is embarking on a new chapter back in his home state

Last June, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells wrote that Anthony Mangieri, self-taught pizzaiolo and owner of Manhattan’s Una Pizza Napoletana, makes “what is unmistakably the finest sit-down pizza in the five boroughs.” High praise in the city that is arguably the country’s pizza capital, although Mangieri is renowned on a global level. Pizza pope, prodigy, legend, maestro, and virtuoso are among the many laudatory terms that have been used to describe the New Jersey native over the past 20 years. 

A pioneer of Neapolitan-style pizza in the United States, Mangieri crafts pies with a blissfully tender crust, marked with blackened bubbles when they emerge from the wood-burning oven. The carefully selected, minimal additional ingredients leave nothing to hide and come together in delicate, delicious harmony.

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The Margherita. (Chung I Ho/The Epoch Times)

Mangieri opened the original Una Pizza Napoletana in Point Pleasant Beach in 1996, then relocated to Manhattan’s East Village in 2004, where he earned rave reviews. He closed that location and opened in San Francisco in 2010, and the third iteration of Una Pizza Napoletana continued to dazzle critics and pizza lovers alike. 

He returned to New York’s Lower East Side in 2018, and for the first time, he is about to open a simultaneous second Una Pizza Napoletana in New Jersey’s Atlantic Highlands.

I tasted Mangieri’s superb pizza at his previous East Village location of Una Pizza Napoletana in 2005, although I didn’t meet Mangieri himself until last spring. I’ll admit I was a little nervous about my first encounter with the pizza luminary.

But his warm, down-to-earth nature put me immediately at ease, and we were quickly trading stories about our childhoods in New Jersey. The next time I met him to interview him for this article, I felt like he was a friend whom I’d known for years. We talked about some of our favorite old-school Italian shops in the city—and while he is clearly very particular about how he makes his own pizza, he hasn’t written off the New York slice.

“I had two at Joe’s last night at midnight on my way home,” he told me. “There a place and a space for everything.”

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All smiles in the kitchen. (The Epoch Times)

Family Ties

Mangieri’s path to pizza stardom is a rather remarkable one. Now 48, he grew up in an Italian-American family in Beachwood, N.J., and spent many hours in the kitchen with his grandmother, who was born in Naples. He was named after his grandfather, a respected ice cream and candy maker in Maplewood, who passed away before he was born.

“I was always kind of obsessed with family and history,” Mangieri recalled. “And I was pretty obsessed with food even as a young kid, to the point that I wouldn’t even eat at other people’s houses. My mother used to be worn out from me and my pickiness,” he said with a laugh.

Frequent trips to Italy with his parents fueled his passions. “Growing up eating Italian-American food and then going to Naples, it was like, holy cow! It was all the food I grew up eating but done in a completely different way, and so much lighter and alive.” He could see the connections and was fascinated by how the culinary traditions that Italian immigrants brought to the States had been translated and transformed. 

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Mangieri at work in the kitchen of Una Pizza Napoletana in Manhattan. (The Epoch Times)

He was drawn to pizza in particular since he was a child, and has vivid memories of the pizzeria in his hometown. In that pre-Internet era, he devoured books from the county library, such as Carol Field’s “The Italian Baker” and Dan Leader’s “Bread Alone.” 

“I would ask my mom to drive me to every pizzeria I read about, all over the place. … We went to Frank Pepe’s and Sally’s in Connecticut, and Totonno’s in Brooklyn—that was probably the pizzeria that touched me the most, before I had a pizzeria. It was the closest thing I’d had in America to great pizza in Naples,” Mangieri said.

He continued building his knowledge by practicing making pizza at home, baking bread and making pastries in his grandmother’s kitchen, reading, talking to family members, and asking questions of pizzaioli (usually via his mother) when he returned to Naples.

A Culinary Crossroads

By the time Mangieri was in high school, his obsession with cooking had intensified. “It’s funny, I was also super into skateboarding and punk rock music, so my friends were all eating at 7-Eleven and drinking Big Gulps, and I’d want to go eat Parmigiano,” he recalled.

In the early 90s, he scraped together the money to open a small Neapolitan-style bread bakery, Sant Arsenio, in Red Bank, N.J. He and his father built everything themselves—the boards he used for the bread to rise on were pieces of wood they purchased at the hardware store. 

He worked completely alone, mixing all of the dough by hand, starting at 10 at night and baking until 8 in the morning when he opened, then selling bread until 2 in the afternoon. But the bakery didn’t quite take off the way he’d hoped it would, and after a few years, he was very close to giving up on his culinary career. 

“I was working like crazy, making no money,” he said. “The bakery was way before its time.” While some customers—including Asbury Park Press food editor and restaurant critic Andrea Clurfeld—appreciated the large, crunchy loaves baked in a wood-fired oven, others assumed the bread was stale. 

Mangieri was seriously considering getting a job as a janitor, so that he could earn a steady income and do the things he loved for himself at home. But he ultimately decided he would always regret not giving opening his own pizzeria a try. 

“I really did want to do pizza, even before the bakery, but I thought it was more than I could take on … I was very shy and I hated talking to people, I was basically a nerd, and I was afraid of that concept of having to actually deal with customers on a face-to-face level. But then I thought to myself, let me just take a chance. I’ve got to at least give it a shot.”

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A gift from Mangieri’s daughter. (Chung I Ho/The Epoch Times)

A Pizza Perfectionist

In 1996, Mangieri signed a one-year lease for the original Una Pizza Napoletana, in what he describes as a dead zone in Point Pleasant Beach near the ocean. At that point, Neapolitan pizza was essentially unknown in the United States. He bought the specialty Italian 00 flour traditionally used in the dough from a guy who sold it out of the trunk of his car. 

“When I opened, I only made marinara and margherita pizzas, and in the beginning I didn’t use buffalo mozzarella because you couldn’t get it in America,” he recounted. “You gotta think, when I opened you couldn’t buy broccoli rabe in the food store, you couldn’t even buy cherry tomatoes year-round!”

He says he was fortunate to be able to continue honing his pizza-making abilities and zeroing in on what worked best, even after the pizzeria was open for business. 

“The beautiful thing back then was that you could open up and not really have your skills and just keep tweaking, because there wasn’t the immediacy of the Internet. Now if you open up a place and you suck, everyone in the world will know about it in five minutes. You could end up out of business.” 

“I wanted to be the best in the world at what I was doing, for me—I didn’t know what the best was, but I put every ounce of my everything into it and I just kept going with it, and then I started to gain a real following.”

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Toppings, like mozzarella di bufala, are spare and high-quality. (Chung I Ho/The Epoch Times)

Mangieri decided he wanted to bring Una Pizza Napoletana to New York City in 2004, so he closed the original and opened the pizzeria in Manhattan’s East Village. Around the same time, he was featured as one of the best of the best in Ed Levine’s book “Pizza: A Slice of Heaven.” He quickly had lines out the door almost consistently until he closed in 2009, to reopen in San Francisco the following year.

By that point, the Neapolitan pizza craze was rapidly growing on the West Coast as well, attracting diners with its hallmark thin, chewy base with a puffy cornicione, or rim, and spare, top-quality additional ingredients—think San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala, fresh basil. The round, roughly 12-inch pies are cooked in a wood-fired oven for 60–90 seconds and typically eaten with a knife and fork. 

While traditional Neapolitan pizza often includes commercial yeast in the dough, Mangieri’s is naturally leavened, made with a starter of just flour and water, harnessing wild yeasts from the environment. The dough is never refrigerated.  

“It’s the only way I’ve made [the dough] since I opened,” he emphasized. “It’s a much healthier product, way easier for your body to digest. But I originally started doing it because it just seemed so magical and interesting and historical, and kind of a mystery and an unexplored way of making pizza in America. You are dealing with something that’s slightly unpredictable, but it’s also what keeps it so exciting and beautiful, the adventure in trying to harness that little piece of nature.”

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After nearly eight years in San Francisco, Mangieri and his wife felt it was time to move back to the NYC area. He opened the fourth Una Pizza Napoletana on Orchard Street in late spring 2018, but this time with two partners, chefs Fabian von Hauske Valtierra and Jeremiah Stone. They ran it together for a few months and realized they had their separate ways about many things, Mangieri explained, and by October of last year, he was running the restaurant solo. 

There are five pizzas on the menu, with two additional pizzas, named for Mangieri’s cousin and daughter, offered on Fridays and Saturdays. The policy on substitutions is “no, grazie!” but Mangieri is quick to point out that this stance is not meant to be harsh or hurtful to people.

“There’s a real reason and thought behind it, [from] 30 years of thinking about stuff. I feel like the place is at its best when it’s left to be what it’s meant to be,” he said.

He recognizes that people have a multitude of dining options to choose from, and says it’s his hope that those who choose to give Una Pizza Napoletana a try will come in with an open heart, and decide for themselves whether or not it’s for them. 

“I just think the pizza becomes a different product when you start adding other things to it, and there’s room for that—and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But if everybody just keeps jumping on every bandwagon that comes along, what’s left? There’s no individuality, there’s nothing unique, there’s nothing special, if we all do the same thing and no one sticks to what they started out doing, or tradition.”

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The pies are cooked in a wood-fired oven for 60–90 seconds. (Chung I Ho/The Epoch Times)

Returning to His Roots

The new Atlantic Highlands Una Pizza Napoletana is scheduled to open in February and has been eagerly anticipated by Jersey Shore residents for months. 

Mangieri told me he didn’t set out to have two locations and had been considering closing the Manhattan restaurant when he put things in motion for the space in New Jersey. But Pete Wells’ glowing New York Times review in June—his second after a mixed review of the pizzeria less than a year earlier—helped solidify the choices and changes that Mangieri made when his partners stepped aside.

“I just ran it in the way that I felt it should be, for Una,” he said. “And then in doing that, we were lucky and blessed enough that we got re-reviewed, which was completely unexpected and kind of unheard of, and many things started to happen and we got it going again in a good way.” 

Mangieri says he has gradually built a beautiful team of people at his Manhattan restaurant and plans to spend four nights a week at the second location when it opens, at least in the beginning. 

“This has been a very slow, organic process for me… Up until a year and a half ago, I made every single dough ball and every single pizza since the place opened in 1996, so this is definitely not like an overnight success where I’m snowballing into a franchise,” he said, laughing. 

While he admits that the small town of Atlantic Highlands may not be the most strategic spot for the second pizzeria, he chose it because it’s an area that he loves—for the outdoors, the people, and the energy he feels inside the space itself. 

“I think the new place will be a beautiful oasis for me and for the pizzeria; I’m really excited to spend time down there and do what I love doing in a place that I love being [in]. I think it’s cool to go back to an area that you’re from, and it’s been a good reception so far, people are really excited. I hope it can be a place that brings not only something that’s really special, but also just brings a lot of cool people together.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited about the actual space itself as I am for this one, and then after that, I don’t know… I don’t see this being the end of the road for Una Pizza or for me. I don’t know where I’m gonna end up, but I’ll just keep on rolling.” 

Kristine Jannuzzi is a New York City-based bilingual (English and Italian) freelance writer, content creator, and social media strategist. Her work has been published in La Cucina Italiana International, Culture: The Word on Cheese, Italy Magazine, British Heritage Travel, and Listen Magazine, among others. Follow her on Instagram @nyccheesechick

 

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