July 30, 2012 | BITE: My Journal

Bigger than Life: Nicoletta Wisconsin Pizza


The clever two-tier stand fits into the table leaving it free for snacks and salads.

The clever two-tier stand fits into the table leaving it free for snacks and salads.


          It was inevitable that Michael White, in his naked rage for empire, would eventually toss off a pizza joint. Nicoletta, on an East Village flight path of chowhounds and noshers is the surprisingly restrained result — a perfect model of a joint with global franchise potential.


Nicoletta draws an NYU crowd, chauffeur-driven uptowners, families, first-nighters.


          Given White’s outsize ambition, the place is modest. Bare brick walls, almost demure, with only 60 seats and no bar to up the daily take. And yet, I am impressed by graceful touches — designer reproduction chairs, pizza stands that get planted into tabletops, the sweetness of the mostly young women who race about whipping traffic along. Unpadded wooden slat banquettes discourage loitering. Yes, I am surprised how much I like it. 


We’re wild about this peppery Calabrese topping with pepperoni and fennel sausage.


          Granted, the thick, rather bland crust can be a tough chew — at the next table plates are piled high with the leavings of ravaged dough. I’m stripping away excess dough too, savoring the thick cut pepperoni and homemade fennel sausage on a marvelous spicy Calabrese (from a seductive list of ten specialty pizzas, $18 to $22). The thick and swampy pie is big and blowsy Wisconsin-style and I’m putting away part of a second cut in spite of myself.  I’m from Detroit, a stone’s throw from Wisconsin. We grew up on deep-dish Greek pizza. 


The mushrooms are wimpily bland and the truffle crema elusive on the Tartufata.


          My companions tonight are happy enough with the Tartufata, but I find its mushrooms surprisingly vapid and alleged truffle crème elusive. With friends on another outing, the Porchetta with sliced pork from White’s Osteria Morini and garden fresh arugula is somehow not as lush and appealing as the creamy, eggy Carbonara, with tangles of bacon and pecorino Romano. Our five mouths agree, though I’ll confess that I’m sneaking more than my share of pork cracklings from the piggy pie.


The lush and cheesy Carbonara pie with bacon is seductive, our favorite tonight.


          I see tables of six and eight focused on pizza. Not us.We’re tasting the assaggini e sfizi, small bites to nibble while waiting for the main act: mixed olives with cubes of salami, fresh summer corn tossed on buffalo mozzarella, eggplant caponata, marvelous white balsamic-pickled cucumbers.


From left, the “N” glass and Sfizi: corn on mozzarella, fabulous pickles, caponata.


          What we don’t order ourselves on that first visit, the house sends as a gift. Shishito peppers on shards of fried pepperoni is an original. The suppli – little fried rice balls - are nothing much, but at $4 to $6 for each little bowl of sfizi, you can hardly complain.


Marking time with Neapolitan meatballs and toasted focaccio fingers to dip up the sauce.


          We’re making it an evening, with antipasti and salads too. Brick-oven baked meatballs nestle in tomato sauce alongside warm, toasted fingers of focaccia to scoop up more sauce. Mozzarella en carrozza (stuffed into bread and fried) was a passion of my childhood. I have to try it, made with premium fior di latte and a hit of anchovy.


Both this Nicoletta salad with little gem lettuce and the Caesar-like Romano are fine.


          I’m the only one indulging. My friends are saving themselves for the full-on carb-immersion to come, and gear up with salads.  Both the Nicoletta (gem lettuce and red endive with goat cheese crostina) and the Romano (romaine, radicchio, anchovies, croutons and shaved parmesan) are first-rate. Alas, scrupulously fresh octopus, mussels, clams and calamari are curiously listless in the seafood salad. Did someone forget the vinaigrette?


I’m looking at the crowd through the double-tiered pizza platters. They’re eating.


          A deftly seasoned fried chicken thigh, layered with cheese on a tangle of broccoli rabe, tangy from a dose of Calabrian hot chili vinegar, could be a ten buck entrée for anyone who’s sworn off pizza. Tonight ours is overcooked.


Waiting at the service counter, my friend discovers Manhattan Espresso soda on tap.


          On a second visit, waiting for our table to clear, my Brooklyn-born friend Diane spies “Manhattan Special Espresso” on a spigot. “You have Manhattan coffee soda on tap?” she asks the manager. “I never saw it on tap!” she yelps.  All of us get a pour. It’s an awesome jolt of espresso, sweet and tingling. I can’t believe that in my forty-four years as a relentless taster I somehow managed to miss this amazing Brooklyn invention. “Made on Manhattan Avenue since 1896,” it says on their web site.


There’s a busy lineup of cooks in black Sicilian toques in the open kitchen.


          It makes a brilliant affogato too. Ice cream normally drowned and melting in hot espresso gets a splash of Manhattan Special soda and amaretti crumble here. “It’s the best affogato I ever had,” says Diane’s husband Garry, who admits to being addicted to that caffeine-loaded finale.


Chef Ben Lee came to Nicoletta from Marea where he was Sous Chef.


          Diane and I are immersed in the wicked excess of Nicoletta’s fior di latte soft serve.  It comes sweet and sensuous in a big glass with a choice of two toppings for just $6. I’m having mine with dark chocolate sauce, salted caramel, and pistachio brittle for fifty cents extra. Dazed, but cold-bloodedly aware, I have almost eaten all of mine and half of Diane’s.


Fior di latte soft-serve topped with chocolate sauce, salted caramel, candied pistachios.


          What a clever dessert for a global rollout, so simple, easily multiplied once White gets his empire in gear. The menu — sfizi, pizza, gelato — reminds me of the Batali-Bastianich formula for the launch of Otto in 2003. Mario’s iron-pan pizza was seriously flawed too.  But he re-thought it.


          Clearly White should consider how much of his leathery crust is going into the garbage and change the formula. Ha. That would be humble pie, not exactly the chef’s style.  He knows he isn’t about to seduce serious fans of Neapolitan pizza. But there’s a lot of room for his formula in the Midwest and what do Parisians know?


160 Second Avenue, NE corner of 10th Street. 212 432 1600. Monday through Friday 5 pm to 2:45 am. Saturday and Sunday noon to 2:45 pm. 


Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2012, All rights reserved.

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