For three years, chef and Wisconsin native Michael White was the restaurant industry’s golden boy. Using Convivio as a springboard, he opened a string of celebrated Italian restaurants that included Marea, Osteria Morini, and Ai Fiori. Then, earlier this year, he hit a brick wall when premiering Nicoletta, a pizzeria in the East Village. It was a predictable move, coming on the heels of Pulino’s and other chef-driven pie places. What better way to harvest money than leverage your name with cheap-to-make pizzas paired with a pricey wine list?
But the city’s critics cried “Enough!” The Times‘ Pete Wells groused, “In thickness and heft, a Nicoletta pizza resembles the September issue of Vogue,” referreing to the hopelessly fat fall-preview edition of the fashion magazine. Meanwhile, Slice’s Adam Kuban complained that the pies seemed calculated to endure long delivery times. And Ryan Sutton of Bloomberg News summed it up by comparing the output to a notorious fast-food chain: “The combined weight of the cheese, sauce, and toppings makes the pies taste more like an exercise in Sbarro-style excess rather than Michelin-worthy balance.”
Reading all these early reviews made me wonder if White had really effed up this badly. Hopefully, the place had made amends in the interim and was now much better. Also, I hoped that the style of pie at least filled a unique niche in the expanding catalog of New York pizzas. Several commentators had identified the thickish product as Wisconsin-style. Having been a student in the Badger State and eaten dozens during that time, I felt qualified to make the call.
Arriving for a first visit, I discovered a corner establishment picturesquely situated across the street from St. Marks Church. Outdoor seating wraps around two sides, and at 6:30 on a weekend evening, there were empty tables. Deep inside, a narrow open kitchen was outfitted with six conventional ovens, and pizza making was proceeding along factory principles. One guy flattened dough balls into perfect rounds, another added toppings, while a third rotated the pizzas in the single oven then in use.
Although Wisconsin pizzas usually feature simple and conventional ingredients like pepperoni, black olives, Italian sausage, and mushrooms singly or in combination, the toppings at Nicoletta are more complex, often evoking other Italian dishes. The carbonara ($19) riffs on the famous Roman spaghetti sauce: cream, black pepper, pecorino, and pancetta in a salty, soupy, funky morass, with egg dribbled over the top. Pretty good. The best pie my friends and I encountered was the patatona ($19), layered with potatoes, onions, rosemary, crème fraîche, and made-in-Wisconsin Nueske’s bacon. Our only caveat? The pie is a near replica of the “baked potato” pizza at Pete Zaaz, a wildly inventive Prospect Heights pizzeria.
There are eight other pies, all 12 inches in diameter and cut in six small slices. Many flaunt a dairy richness (one uses both mozzarella and ricotta), but even those that don’t possess a lushness that makes them particularly filling. What this opulence can’t disguise, though, is an uneven crust. It’s often dense and damp in places, fantastically inflated in others, sometimes charred and sometimes pale as a whitewashed fence. This crust is anathema to a pizza fanatic; it’s like visiting a different pizzeria with every bite. According to a sous-chef friend, “The ovens simply don’t run hot enough, especially when the cooks are flipping them open all the time.”
Although the crusts are annoying, the appetizers are good enough to make a whole meal. Among the salads, there’s a nice seafood number that mixes baby octopuses, mussels, clams, and calamari in a light lemon dressing ($12); carrozza ($11) is a splendid take on the Roman toasted-cheese sandwich called mozzarella in carrozza (“in a carriage”), breading cheese, frying it, then laving it with rich sauce. There are good pastas, too, but at around $16 per puny serving, you’ll wish you’d gone to John’s of 12th Street.
Only one dessert is available, a plain soft-serve gelato ($6) that can be adorned with a series of interesting and sometimes challenging toppings (50 cents each), including “chile peanut toffee sauce.” Although expensive for a pizzeria, the wine list has a couple of excellent and mercifully cheap bottles. At $32, the chilled Lambrusco Grasparossa is the perfect thing to drink with pizza—fizzy, uncomplicated, and off-dry without being sweet.
It makes you wish the pies could stand up to it. I took another bite of that disappointing crust, and my mind went back to college: It tasted like the Tombstone frozen pizzas once served in Wisconsin bars and warmed in lightbulb cabinets.