Renowned Pizzamaker Anthony Mangieri Returning Home

The pizza chef talks about his love for his native state, his pizza philosophy and why he's opening a branch of Una Pizza Napoletana in Atlantic Highlands.

Anthony Mangieri. Photo courtesy of Dylan + Jeni

Anthony Mangieri, who grew up in Beachwood, near Toms River, is regarded as one of America’s foremost practitioners of pizza. He is in the process of opening a branch of his famed Una Pizza Napoletana in Atlantic Highlands. Depending on construction and permitting, the restaurant could open as soon as late August—“the dream scenario,” he says. But the opening could spill into the fall.

Mangieri first launched the restaurant in Point Pleasant Beach in 1996. He later moved it to the East Village of Manhattan, then to San Francisco. About a year ago, he moved it back to Manhattan, on the Lower East Side.

Now, for the first time, he will operate two Una Pizzas at once. The new one will be located at 91A First Avenue in Atlantic Highlands. Coincidentally, that’s across the street from one of the Nicholas Creamery ice cream shops run by Nicholas Harary of Restaurant Nicholas in Red Bank. Main course and dessert, just steps away.

Mangieri, 48, is no stranger to the area. “I lived in Red Bank and Fair Haven most of my adult life,” he says. “My first business was a bread bakery, which I opened in Red Bank in about 1993. The reason I’m coming back is I love the area. I could have opened anywhere in the world, but honestly, I never wanted to leave New Jersey in the first place. I left for egotistical reasons, to prove myself to myself. Which is good.

“But I think it’s important that people who do great things when they leave here, come back here. I meet so many people around the country who are doing great things, and so many turn out to be from New Jersey. My wife is from Italy, and she’s heard me joke many times, “Trenton makes, the world takes,” except I usually say, “New Jersey makes,” because I’m not from Trenton.

“Most Americans have an incorrect idea of Jersey—they think it’s only what they see around Newark airport. We’ve got urbanism when you want it. But we also have the best beaches. I’m a big mountain biker, and we’ve got incredible mountain biking: Allaire, Hartshorne and Huber*, for example. I take trips to bike in California and Utah. They’re obviously spectacular, but having learned mountain biking in New Jersey, I can bike with anyone anywhere.

[*Allaire State Park, Hartshorne Woods Park and Huber Woods Park are all in Monmouth County, not far from Atlantic Highlands.]

“When I opened the pizzeria in the East Village, I had an apartment in Brooklyn, but I was living in Red Bank from 2004 to 2010, when I moved to California. Since leaving California last year, I’ve rented a storage unit in Atlantic Highlands to keep my bikes and stuff. I even wanted to live in it.”

Photo courtesy of Dylan + Jeni

Mangieri’s pizza, as the restaurant’s name suggests, is clearly rooted in the classic style of Naples—a 60-to-90-second bake at high temperature in a wood-burning oven, yielding a softer, puffier dough than classic New Jersey pizza.

But his goal is not to reproduce traditional Neapolitan pizza, but to interpret it in a personal way. Which, he notes, is a goal that unites all serious pizzamakers today.

“There are young people in Naples now who are breaking all the rules,” he says. “I’ve been put in this category of ‘how it’s made in Naples.’ But honestly that has never been the case, even though my family is originally from that part of Italy.”

Like his friend Dan Richer, the acclaimed chef/owner of Razza Pizza Artiginale in Jersey City, Mangieri says he “doesn’t set a limitation on where ingredients come from. I just find the best ingredients for what I’m doing.

“Our pizzas are very different,” he adds, “but both of us are trying to make the best version of what we want pizza to be. My pizza has a softer base, the dough is cooked much faster. That’s the initial difference you’ll notice.

“My pizza is an interpretation of what I think pizza might have been like 100 years ago. That’s why I didn’t use a mixing machine when I started. I have always made a naturally leavened dough, without using yeast. For years I insisted on mixing by hand, but I couldn’t keep up with the amount of dough required, and it was slowly destroying my health.

Una Pizza Napoletana’s Margherita pizza. Photo courtesy of Dylan + Jeni

“Finally, when I had the restaurant in the East Village, I got a mixing machine. I didn’t like the results, so I went back to hand mixing for about a year. Finally I said I’ve got to get a mixer and figure this out once and for all. At that point I’d been making pizza for about 11 years. Now I’ve been using a mixer for about 11 or 12 years. It was quite a learning curve, but I think the dough is better now than it’s ever been.

“Occasionally I’ll mix by hand just to see where I’m at. It gives you an immediate touch and connection you wont get if you only use a mixer. But a mixer allows you to create a much more hydrated dough, which is much more light and airy.

“Also, my dough is never refrigerated. It’s easier to put it in the fridge and take it out an hour before baking. But with a handmade product your goal is to bake the dough when it’s at the perfect point of its proofing [rising]. When you’re not adding yeast, just using the natural starter, there’s a window when the rising is perfect. It’s a very small window, and it may vary from day to day, batch to batch. It isn’t easy.

“This is where 25 years of being in business comes into play. My idea of a bad night is nothing a customer would even notice. A customer may say, ‘This is the best I ever had,’ and I’m behind the counter wanting to kill myself because I’m so stressed out. Other nights, I feel I’m totally in the pocket and in command, and someone says, ‘I’m not liking it,’ and I’m thinking, this is best I’ve made in a month.

“But even on a ‘bad’ day, the pizza is always within a certain limit. That consistency is what money can’t buy. My friend Chris Bianco [of famed Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix] always says, ‘It’s easy to make one good pizza; but make 100 good pizzas in a row, now you’ve done something.’”

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