Maurizio de Rosa greets everyone that walks into the restaurant with a big smile. The almost-familiar sounds of Italian sang across the dining room. De Rosa and the rest of his small team of waitresses and cooks were so friendly during my first visit to San Paolo Pizzeria, which opened in a discreet location in the middle of the very indiscreet Palermo Soho neighborhood last May, that I was convinced that we were the only strangers in a sea of regulars. I quickly learned the error of that assumption when he reached our table. He grinned at us with the same loud sincerity before asking, “Are you sure you two only want one pizza?” This was just de Rosa being de Rosa I would come to learn. Jovial and sincere, with a fire in his eyes as he began discussing the proud history of the Neapolitan culinary tradition.
His uniform was as impeccable as usual: hair neatly in place, a white chef’s coat that fell below the knee, his name clearly inscribed above the pocket where a pen and thermometer were neatly tucked away. My sister was in town and we were touring the city’s pizzerias that night, I announced. We were conducting an informal comparison of the porteño style with traditional Italian pizza and San Paolo was chosen as one of four samples. “If you want to know about real Neapolitan style pizza,” he explained, “You’re going to have to come back and try a fried pizza.”
Our eyes widened and we briefly contemplated skipping out on the rest of our research to try the aforementioned montanara, a traditional Naples street food that’d I’d only read about. The deep-fried dish was briefly on trend a few years ago when a Brooklyn pizzeria began offering the centuries-old meal and the likes of Serious Eats, Saveur, Lucky Peach and the NY Times pontificated over the discovery of the world’s ‘newest’ pizza craze.
It isn’t anything new for the Naples native though. De Rosa is the product of generations of cooks and bakers including an uncle who was “the cheapest man in the world” who revived stale doughs by stuffing them with ice chips to bring back the moistness and his mother, Rita de Rosa, who helped Mario Batali pen traditional Italian cookbooks. Likewise, San Paolo is the most recent enterprise in a long string of restaurants for De Rosa, who ran a number of restaurants and pizzerias across Manhattan. He continues to travel back and forth to take care of Sushi Nakazawa, a four star New York Times reviewed Japanese restaurant whose kitchen is led by Daisuke Nakazawa, a former protege of Jiro Ono.
“I’m more interested in history than I am in the future,” De Rosa begins, “I just don’t have the brain for creating new recipes. I’m more interested in the trial and error that comes with perfecting the ones that are centuries-old.” This is a visible theme in all of his restaurants, whether it be with a traditional twenty course omakase menu or the smattering of his ancestral dishes that decorate the understated menu at San Paolo. When I arrive to interview him he excitedly tells me he’d like me to try some raviolis, “here they are called sorrentinos,” he explained, pointing to a lengthy investigation he’d just read and was excited to discuss. The dish has a murky origin story — some claim it was invented in Buenos Aires, others Mar Del Plata — but to De Rosa, “it’s a big ravioli similar to what you’d find in the Liguria region of Italy.”
The raviolis were stuffed with ricotta and mozzarella and topped with a slightly sweet tomato ragu. The dough was dense and chewy and played well with the creamy ricotta and the subtly smoked mozzarella. Other starters include traditional frittura, with a plate of four fried appetizers: a mortadella and mozzarella frittata, a potato croquette, arancini and a diamond shaped cornmeal dish similar to faina. The arancini — fried balls of rice — were stuffed with salami and mozzarella and offer a savory start to the meal.
The pizzas are divided between “traditional” and “modern”. I’ve always stuck to tradition. Doughs are left to rise for three days in traditional wooden crates called madia, a popular practice in Napoles used for bulk fermentation. The technique eliminates some of the water from the balls of dough which translates into that less bench flour being needed to keep the raw dough from sticking. “The less bench flour I need, the better the dough,” De Rosa explains, it’s a shame to have to cover the slightly “fermented funkiness” with chalky fresh flour. During the 90 second bake in an oven De Rosa built himself, a thick crust quickly rises while the middle remains quite thin creating a surprising duality of texture and flavor. The first bite is soft and allows the toppings to take over your taste buds, once you’ve reached the crust has a crunchy exterior that reveals a chewy fresh interior.
The margherita is an infallible favorite. The original combination that gave birth to modern pizza is a simple mix of peeled roma tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, a sprinkle of reggiano cheese and whole basil leaves. The mastunicola, lesser known but equally ‘napolitana’, is a dish I would’ve normally glossed over, but de Rosa insisted I give it a try. It’s topped with provolone and basil and brushed with pig lard. Provolone is a fairly mild cheese but the gentle bristle of fat pulls out a rustic salty taste.
After trying the pizza fritta though, I am not sure I will ever be able to order anything else on the menu. It was a style that popped up in the streets of Naples in the early 1900s. Wives of the city’s bakers would take unsold doughs and fry them in the absence of a wood-burning pizza oven to be eaten at home or sold on the street with simple toppings or none at all. Later on, the owners of the now world famous Pizzeria Starita added mozzarella to the fried dough and gave it a quick melt in the oven, or so the legend goes.
The result is a puffy fried dough the size of a frisbee. The dish is offered on the lunch menu, but De Rosa will make it special if it’s requested off menu during dinner. The outside is golden brown with a crispy bottom crust and comes topped with tomato sauce and flakes of parmesan. The inside has the same soft pillowy texture and pronounced yeast flavor a freshly made donut. “You might need to check with your cardiologist after this one, but an early death is worth the pleasure.” I was done, dead, RIP, take me back to California and scatter my ashes because I’m not sure another pizza in this city can top that for me.
There’s more in the works for San Paolo. De Rosa plans to team up again with partner Dante Liporace (ex-Tarquino, current executive chef at the Casa Rosada) to create a traditional Argentine pizzeria. “There is a misconception about me that I hate Argentine pizza. That isn’t true at all. It is a different style that I really like that has a very interesting history,” he explains, “I just think that many pizzerias fail to do justice to the style by using low-quality ingredients.” The project is still unconfirmed, but fingers crossed we’ll soon see a thick fugazzetta rellena with high-quality mozzarella and techniques that De Rosa and Liporace are sure to perfect. Until then, I’m happy to subsist on pizza montanara.
Uriarte 1616, Palermo Soho
Everyday, 12:00-3:00pm and 8:00-midnight
Price: $$ (150-250) to $$$ (250-400); three course dinner special for $200