Like a secret destination deep in the forest of Narnia, the gold-tiled oven glows behind a low wall at the end of the room. Emblazoned across its convex surface is “DONATELLA.” Magical unicorn? Queen of the Underworld? No, just the restaurateur Donatella Arpaia, whose relentless publicity machine has kept her in the public eye ever since she opened her first place, Bellini, in 1998. But when she slinks past her new oven in person, she looks haggard and a bit frumpy, nothing like her publicity stills.
Which is OK, because the pizzas that fly from that gilt dome at her new self-named Chelsea pizzeria are fantastic. Of all the places in town making the laughable assertion that they’re re-creating “the true pie of Naples” (some even have a certificate from Verace Pizza Napoletana to prove it!), Donatella’s comes closest. The crust is pillowy, charred here and there, but not enough to make it bitter. The ingredients are pure and simple, like innocent fawns in the forest, and the tomato sauce remains spare and uncontaminated by strong flavors. Thankfully, the one-person pies come cut in quarters, which isn’t done in Naples. The interior is soggy, but not too soggy, and when finishing a slice most diners can’t resist the “bone,” or circumferential arc of the crust. The dough is that good.
My hands-down favorite is diavola (San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, Pecorino Romano, toothpicks of spicy salami, and chili oil, $15), but the simple margherita is every bit as delectable. Of the seven pies offered, in a refreshingly short list, the only one my friends and I didn’t dig was cappellaccio, which features mushrooms that have been charred in the oven and then marinated. The evening we tried it, the crust was not quite up to par, and the ‘shrooms overpowered it. The biggest problem with these beehive wood-burning ovens—and all the other Naples-style places in town have experienced it, too—is that it takes months to learn their individual idiosyncrasies and produce consistent pies.
Narnia golden dome notwithstanding, the premises are attractive and comfortable, decorated with plat maps of Naples from a 19th-century German source. A banquette runs along one bare-brick wall all the way to the oven, with tables installed beside it. A few tables loom in the front window, and there’s a seating section next to the oven, which will be particularly comfy on cold winter days. And who doesn’t look good in the flickering illumination of a fire? Additionally, the lighting fixtures are cleverly made of empty tomato-sauce jars, casting an incandescent glow over the whole place from a dark coffered ceiling.
But Donatella is more than a pizzeria. A modest number of offerings occur in seven further categories, making the place a full-blown Italian restaurant, with the sort of limited collection of dishes you might find in an actual trattoria in Italy. The categories include Salumi (cured meats), Formaggi (cheeses), Antipasti, Fritti (fried things), Insalate, Pasta, and Griglieri (grilled items). Among pastas, there’s a generous serving of paccheri (big short tubes, $15) in a sauce of concentrated, cooked-down meat and caramelized onions. In the griglieri section, find an oven-roasted chicken, which I saw a couple of big guys dressed as lumberjacks tear apart with gusto on Halloween.
The menu has a stealth agenda, too. Many of the more scrumptious dishes are Sicilian, a cuisine that has failed to produce a successful upscale restaurant in Manhattan, despite several attempts. The island is a short swim from Africa, was controlled at times by the Spanish and the French, and, as a point along ancient Mediterranean trade routes, has a cuisine far more multifaceted than most diners suspect. Fried calamari ($12) is one of Sicily’s most durable contributions to world cuisine, and the dish has rarely been done so well as at Donatella, where the rings and tentacles are barely breaded, quickly fried, furnished with a lemony aioli (there’s the French influence), and dusted with the salty pressed fish roe called bottarga.
Oozing cheese, the outsize potato croquettes are a Sicilian passion, as are the spicy mussels stew, the pea-flecked rice balls, and a novel caponata that features four kinds of seafood. But the most Sicilian thing of all may be the bucatini con sarde ($15), a hollow spaghetti sauced with capers, gaeta olives, nuggets of fresh sardine, and toasted bread crumbs (which the Sicilians often use in place of Parmesan cheese). The only thing missing from the traditional recipe is fennel. Who can blame Donatella? As with the glistening oven at chamber’s end, the combative culinary sorceress with bleached-blond tresses from the storied realm of Woodmere puts her indelible stamp on everything.