Fail, Caesar: Marta Drags Down Danny Meyer's Roman Mini-Empire
All photos by Bradley Hawks for the Village Voice
With the upcoming Shake Shack IPO, Danny Meyer will complete his transformation from restaurateur to entrepreneur. And while Meyer's burger juggernaut started with a single hot dog cart, I can't say I'm itching for a Sbarro-like market takeover after my visits to Marta (29 East 29th Street, 212-651-3800), his first pizzeria, which he opened with chef Nick Anderer in September in the lobby of the Martha Washington Hotel. Forget guns or cannoli — in Marta's case I wish I could walk away from the restaurant and take the pizza someplace else (ideally, to a different restaurant).
Take the pizza somewhere that isn't theme-park-size and plugged into a hotel entrance like a jazzy cafeteria/lounge that happens to have two gorgeous, custom-built ovens whose embers glow throughout the day at a raging 700 degrees. Overnight they cool to 500, and the morning crew uses them to roast vegetables for the day. Hardware like that deserves a better home, or at least a space separate from the hotel's cavernous foyer. The procession of rolling luggage detracts from luxuries like $100 dry-aged porterhouses or having a member of the kitchen staff hurry over to your table to shave fresh truffles onto a $50 white pie of béchamel, ricotta, and Fontina cheeses. (Meyer's famously polished service is in full effect here.) While Anderer's intentions — to elevate this most humble Roman dish — are earnest, the expensive flourishes are lost in translation. Take that truffle pie: A punchier combination of chanterelles and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms with red onions and thyme overshadows the pricey cult fungi at less than half the cost. Truffles also find their way into a $35 wagyu tartare that included strands of gristle, presumably at no extra charge. One dish that was no luxury at all: a friend's "Carote" salad, which arrived with a clump of untrimmed watercress in exchange for $14.
But this is Danny Meyer we're talking about. The legendary hospitality pro surely sees the potential to replicate the success he and Anderer have cultivated at Maialino, their Roman trattoria attached to the Gramercy Park Hotel. Marta's pizzas are indeed a treat, crusts cracker-thin and bearing choice toppings, the best of which take inspiration from traditional Roman dishes — like amatriciana sauce, and tripe stewed with tomatoes. Results are compelling. The tripe takes a hit from Pecorino Romano, snappy mint, and just a skosh of red-pepper heat. Meaty swaths of guanciale, the pork jowl bacon popular in Italy's Lazio region, cover a sharp Pecorino-showered tomato sauce heightened with onions and chiles. Carbonara pizza — guanciale, black pepper, crispy potatoes, and more Pecorino cheese tamed by liquid coddled eggs — is stellar. Unlike Neapolitan pies with their puffy, yeasty crusts, Roman pizza is lighter, with more crunch than chew. (For his first time attempting pizza, Anderer worked for weeks to achieve a perfect ratio of crunch to chew, and he has largely succeeded.)
Still, I can't help but wonder if a Shake Shack–esque approach would have benefited everyone more than this scenario. Try your luck with walk-in seating around the restaurant's handsome U-shape bar or facing the open kitchen. Marta's reservation books are filled with people waiting a month for sauced and cheesed bread.
If you and your visiting friends and/or relatives are lucky enough to snag a table, stick to the pizza, and pair it with any of the restaurant's eighteen beers (five are Italian) or innocuous $10 cocktails. Venture away from the pies and the menu underwhelms, all the more so given the caliber of the team in charge. Rabbit meatballs should be more forgiving to fork pressure. The meat is well seasoned, but had I been blind-tasting it I would've been hard-pressed to identify it as the woodland's cutest edible creature. That said, I'd much rather be served the bunny than the travesty of a roast chicken I endured, a sinful mass of charred, patchy skin and rubbery flesh hiding watery greens. We had better luck with rosemary-perfumed grilled lamb chops. A surf-and-turf take on saltimbocca was both well conceived and well executed, fleshy trout fillets standing in for veal beneath a blanket of prosciutto woven with crisp sage leaves. But like that gristly wagyu tartare, an appetizer of baby cuttlefish proved something of a letdown, plump and sweet but awkwardly plopped whole atop a mess of crushed potatoes that were soaked in a sauce flavored with Calabrian chiles.
Desserts are pizzeria-priced at $7 and under. They're of the playful ilk, with kabocha squash lending a savory note to olive oil cake and risotto jazzing up a buckwheat tart. And although its dense salted-chocolate cookies are a challenge to consume without a bib, the "Ice Cream Panino" recalls centurion campfires past with smoked mascarpone gelato and a crust of pistachios. Even with its logistical setbacks, it's a surprisingly exciting ice cream sandwich, one that I could imagine scarfing down in the privacy of my Martha Washington Hotel room after demolishing a wood-fired pie. In fact, if I were a hotel guest, I'd order room service: Marta's kitchen staff handles that menu, too, and there'd be no obligation to relive those beautiful memories of check-in time. Everyone else has to wait for a table: This pizzeria doesn't do takeout.*
*Clarification published 1/13/2015: The final paragraph of this story has been amended from an earlier version to reflect that, while the Marta staff prepares all the food for room service, that menu and the restaurant's are separate. The Voice had been told initially by both the hotel concierge and the restaurant's host that Marta's entire menu was available for room service.
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