Wednesday, December 26, 2007

In the Cellar With La Pizza Fresca

One of the best things about writing my "In the Cellar" column for the New York Sun is it causes me to discover restaurants that I otherwise might pass by. Several people had recommended La Pizza Fresca to me as a destination not only for superior pie but great wine. But I didn't make it there until I assigned myself to cover it. The wine list is as impressive as everyone says, and goes startling well with the pizza, jacking up my already high opinion of that food.

One thing I didn't get into in the article is the actually cellar. (Ironic, no?) That's because the owner, Brad, is a little sheepish about it. The place is an endearing mess, boxes upon boxes piled on each other, unpacked, with almost not place to walk. It would take half a year to sort it out. "I don't even show it to my friends," he told me.

Eating Pizza, Sipping Sassicaia


The owner and managing director of the Flatiron district restaurant La Pizza Fresca, Bradley Bonnewell, was staring across the room at a dark-haired man in an expensive-looking suit. The diner, seated at a table near the bar, was lustily enjoying his meal. Mr. Bonnewell had never met him and didn't know his name, but he recognized the face — and for good reason. "The guy comes in at least twice a week," he said. "He spends maybe $100 on food and $1,000 on wine."

If you possess the wherewithal, this spending ratio is easily achieved at La Pizza Fresca. The restaurant is known for having forged an unusual, yet happy, symbiosis between excellent, inexpensive Neapolitan-style pizza and superior, quite expensive top-drawer Italian wine. The suited big spender's taste in pizza was quite common — Pizza Marinara and Margarita. His taste in wine, however, skewed toward premium Barolo and Brunello.

La Pizza Fresca (31 E. 20th St. at Broadway, 212-598-0141) is made for the lover of Italy's finer culinary achievements: coffee, pizza, and red wine. Mr. Bonnewell, a onetime advertising executive, fell under the spell of these three delicacies in that order. He entered the food world as the owner of the Manhattan Espresso Café in Midtown East. While on a coffee-buying trip in 1993, he followed a visit to Naples' Kimbo Coffee with lunch at a local pizzeria. "It was just 11 a.m. or 11:30 and they were just getting the fire going and getting the dough out," he recalled. "It was so theatrical. You see all the fresh ingredients and the whole set-up. Finally, you taste your pizza and it's unbelievable. I thought, 'What the hell.'"

He gave up the idea of expanding his café empire, and set his mind on opening a Neapolitan-style pizza restaurant in New York City. La Pizza Fresca opened in 1996, complete with a new brick oven built by an Italian pizzaiolo-bricklayer (a hyphenate profession that could only have been hatched in Naples). One thing Mr. Bonnewell didn't copy was the Italians' habit of eating their pizza with beer or soda. The newborn La Pizza Fresca featured a small wine list.

So, then, how did that list grow to 750 selections, including multiple vintages from the top Piedmont and Tuscany producers? Mr. Bonnewell shrugged, as if the circumstance were the most natural thing in the world. "If you like quality, it's just easy. You drink the cheap wine and then you drink the great wine, and you say, 'Hey, why am I drinking the cheap wine?' I just kind of progressed."

Progressed is one way of putting it. Three-quarters of the list's Barbarescos come from Angelo Gaja, arguably the most famous and highly lauded winemaker in Italy. There are three densely packed pages of Barolos. The famed Super Tuscans Sassicaia and Tignanello are also here in force, as well as a nice selection of wines priced under $75. All this to accompany food you eat with your hands.

The seeming dichotomy doesn't faze Mr. Bonnewell in the least. By now, he's had years of practice defending his particular food and wine-pairing mission. Still, he's willing to prove the argument's validity one more time for a skeptical journalist, opening a bottle of 2004 Moccagatta Barbaresco to wash down a Pizza Savoia topped with mushrooms, pancetta, Fontina cheese, and bufala mozzarella. The bottle and pie, both brimming with Piedmontese character, went amazingly well together, existing in a kind of class-neutral epicurean harmony. The humble meal and heralded wine clearly deserved each other's company.

Mr. Bonnewell's wine world is basically one of beautiful Italian reds. He knows there are people out there with differing palates. He's willing to cater to them, but only just so much. "We're not trying to be so democratic," he said. "We basically buy what we like to drink, and I personally am not a huge white wine fan. With the brick oven, we're pretty much a winter place. We're pretty dead in July and August. Also, I've never had a complaint that we don't have enough whites."

As for people who — ahem — insist on drinking something not produced anywhere on the Italian boot, there is a last resort. Mr. Bonnewell calls it the "Rest of the World List," and it's not immediately shown to guests. This list is where you'll find the wines made in Spain, Argentina, California, and elsewhere. La Pizza Fresca's owner admits that not even he is completely immune to the charms of these wines: "Of course, I love some of the great wines of the rest of the world, but I'm not satisfied."


Anonymous said...

But, I mean, you don't actually like any of those hyperbolic, oak-saturated, place-less Italian reds you name, right? And you don't think they in any meaningful sense go with pizza, right?

Robert Simonson said...

The Moccagatta Barbaresco I mentioned went very well with the pizza and I didn't find it hyperbolic at all. I'm a fann of Moccagatta in general and find the wines to possess a good sense of place. I didn't try any of the other wines I mentioned with the pizza, so I can comment on their compatibility.