Ribalta, a pizzeria located just a couple of blocks off of Union Square, hasn’t necessarily been floundering since it opened just over a year ago, but it hasn’t exactly been thriving, either. So a month ago, Naples native Rosario Procino–formerly of West Village pizza powerhouse Keste–picked up the front-of-the-house reins and an ownership share, and he quickly enlisted Verace Pizza Napoletana-licensed Pasquale Cozzolino–another Neapolitan, who helped launch Pizza Arte before landing at Dellarocco’s in Brooklyn Heights–to helm the kitchen and make some changes to the menu. Cozzolino obliged with a list of Neapolitan-style pizzas built on wood oven-blistered chewy crusts slicked with fresh tomato sauce and mozzarella di Bufala, plus Neapolitan small plates and entrées.
Now that the pair has settled in, the chef is getting creative, turning out variations that range from familiar–a pie is topped with salami–to totally out there, like the Americana pizza made with hot dogs and fries. For Americans, this might seem like sacrilegious divergence from strict Neapolitan standards for pizza, but Procino begs to differ, and he insists it’s part of the team’s lofty goal. “Keste was a turnaround point for Neapolitan pizza in America,” he explains. “It was a fantastic adventure, and we were able to introduce this pizza to many Americans. Now everyone is familiar with it. At Ribalta, we’re doing Neapolitan 2.0.”
We caught up with Procino and chatted about exactly what that means.
Village Voice: Tell us how you got here.
Rosario Procino: I moved here 13 years ago, I got married, and I worked in the corporate world doing sales for Barilla, the big Italian pasta company. I got tired of it. I had worked in food as a child, and I got the opportunity to start a Neapolitan pizzeria, and I took it. I’d always said that the pizza here is good, but not as good as in Naples.
At Keste, I invested the money, did all the planning, and hired the pizza-maker. We had good timing with what we were serving, and we were booming. Last year, I sold the business to my ex-pizzamaker, who is running it now.
After that, I was consulting in Connecticut when I got the opportunity to come and take over Ribalta.
How will Ribalta be different from Keste?
I decided I would try to do Neapolitan pizza 2.0. A few years ago, we were introducing Neapolitan pizza to Americans. For many, it was completely unknown, and they thought it was soggy and uncooked. Now, Americans are very familiar with it, and they love it.
What I want do now is showcase more creativity and openness. Naples is known for creativity–you’ll find many toppings and variations, everything from eggplant parmigiano to hot dog and fries. But because of some individuals, people now in America have this idea that Neapolitan pizza really has to be done a certain way. That’s B.S. Naples is very strict about only the margherita and marinara pizzas.
So Neapolitan 2.0–Americans know what Neapolitan is, now let’s have fun.
How does that work on the menu?
We have some chef-created combinations on the menu, but we start with the margherita pizza, and let people choose their own toppings. It’s still Neapolitan; in fact, we do something that no one does in New York and only really old pizzerias do in Naples: we use natural yeast from a starter that’s 80 to 100 years old. It allows for longer maturation, and the dough can rise for five to seven days. Dough usually breaks down from acid in that time. It creates a much lighter, delicate crust, and it’s better for digestion.That’s a really traditional method. So we are as traditional as possible for the dough and as creative as possible for everything else.
Tell us about chef Pasquale Cozzolino.
I knew I needed someone big to help me here, so I said, “Why don’t you join me for this?” We’re both Neapolitan born and raised, and we were both born and raised with pizza. Growing up in Naples, there is no Neapolitan-style pizza: There is only pizza. And it’s Neapolitan. I ate pizza in Rome and I said, “It’s good, but you can’t call it pizza.” There’s also only one mozzarella, by the way: mozzarella di Bufala.
Pasquale has been making pizza since he was 14 years old, and he went to culinary school in Naples.He’s also a fantastic chef, and he’s also doing large Neapolitan dishes and appetizers and fresh pasta made in-house.
What are your goals for Ribalta?
Since we took over, this place was brought to life. We wanted to show America what Italy is today. When people build Italian restaurants here, they make them out of brick and wood, and they look like they’re falling apart. Italy today is like Eataly. It’s modern and fresh. We’re a new generation of Italians here–me for just 13 years, and only three years for Pasquale. We wanted to show off the new Italy. And we wanted people to be able come to Naples without needing an airplane or passport.
Well the pizza, of course, but the small plates are also fantastic. The zucchini scapece is lightly fried finished with olive oil. The octopus is cooked with tomato sauce and gaeta olives. Come in for pizza and try everything else.
What about the hot dog and fries pizza?
Oh, the Americana! Yes, it’s a little tribute to American food, to New York. Mostly Italians come into eat it, and they say, “Yeah, we always see that.” I did it to show people you could put anything you want on pizza. There’s no police following you around in Naples. No pineapple, though–I went far enough when I added chicken.