After moving the storied Union Square Café, his influential flagship restaurant, to a soaring room off of Park Avenue South last year, hospitality kingpin Danny Meyer is back and buzzing. That is, the buzzers are back.
The same light-up coasters that alert hungry customers in pulsing staccato at Shake Shack — heralding the imminent arrival and subsequent chowing down of smash-griddled burgers and sport pepper–paved Shack-cago hot dogs — can now be found vibrating up a storm at the newest Meyer-backed project: Martina. Now when the buzzers go wild, they shake with the anticipation of Roman-style pizza, the likes of which have won Meyer and chef Nick Anderer boatloads of acclaim at Marta, their trattoria in the NoMad’s Redbury (née Martha Washington) hotel.
People love Marta for its gorgeous wood-fired ovens, for its grilled and ember-roasted Italian small plates, and for its cracker-thin Roman-style pizzas, which come in thrilling combinations, like potato carbonara speckled with guanciale. Martina is Marta condensed, a mini-Marta if you will, with some nips and tucks — like those buzzers, and ready-to-go fried snacks — to make the experience more focused on efficiency. With no disrespect to the fine restaurant Marta’s become, Martina is the pizzeria I wish Anderer had opened with Meyer in the first place, one more closely associated with the everyday shops that fed him during the travels that sparked his appetite for Roman cuisine early in his career and, before that, as a Columbia University art history major.
Seven dollars. That’s Martina’s exceptionally reasonable entry point for a margherita pizza, made with from-scratch dough rolled out so that it emerges from the gas-fired hearth exceedingly crisp with only the slightest chew. As at the mothership, the mozzarella comes from Di Palo’s, and the sauce is another not-too-sweet, lightly tart tomato number. But Martina’s ten-inch rounds are slightly smaller and cost considerably less than the $19 you’ll part with for the same at Marta. Here, a whole plain pie is roughly the equivalent of two slice-shop slices, and the fact that you can be in and out with relative quickness (pizzas cook in about two minutes), and for not that much money, helps cement its usefulness as a neighborhood joint. On the other hand, if you want to while away an afternoon or evening, you can do so while drinking on-tap spritzes ($7) made with Cappelletti, a bitter aperitif from Trento, Italy, and noshing on softly crunchy potato-chive croquettes and suppli, a Roman pizzeria staple of cheesy tomato-risotto balls (both $4.50), before tucking into your pizza.
In interviews, Anderer’s played down comparisons to Shake Shack and hasn’t committed to the idea of rapid expansion, but Martina isn’t some quaint mom-and-pop operation. Like Meyer’s burger juggernaut, it seems built for proliferation. Only it’s a lot nicer to eat in than Shake Shack, whose multiple locations — minus the Madison Square Park original — all share the same corporatized fast-food motif (even though they do it in a way that’s plenty inviting). Settling into one of the sturdy wood chairs or high stools in the dining area at this handsome, white-tiled parlor, sharing a starter of sage-laced white beans ($5) or tender chicken meatballs ($7) showered with grated cheese, it’s easy to forget that you’re at a fast-casual spot with counter service and an electronic paging system — at least until that buzzer goes off. Everything save for half-bottles of champagne ($29–$69 (nice)) costs under $12, making it an ideal candidate for both low-key dates that still feel like you’re sharing something nice, and speedy late-night munchies runs on weekends (they stay open until 1 a.m.). How many slice shops can do that?
Martina is also largely vegetarian-friendly. Without tacking on $2 for spicy salami, an antipasto salad ($9) revels in a familiar toss of black olives, marinated artichokes, and pickled peppers. Meatless eaters should also be delighted to learn that more than half of the eight pies on offer are vegetarian, including a Marta classic topped with fontina and cremini mushrooms ($9). Olives give the ortolana ($10), a white pie with oniony charred kale on top, a welcome zing, while Anderer’s four-cheese blend ($9) adds nutty pecorino toscano and romano cheeses to mozzarella and fontina, crowning the whole affair with a copse of arugula.
At the same time, Anderer knows how to indulge. So the capricciosa ($12), which features items from the antipasto salad (artichokes, olives, mushrooms), is ever-so-gently nudged toward edginess by browned slices of cooked prosciutto cotto and an admirably runny egg. Another pie comes with mushrooms and a choice of extra-savory pork or chicken sausage ($11), both of which excel thanks to a loose grind. And the way that the fattiness of thinly sliced salami piccante, which exhibits more punch than American pepperoni, mingles with sour pickled hot peppers on the diavola ($12) puts the heat front and center without being overpowering. For extra spice, look to the squeeze bottles of amber-hued chile oil that hold court at every table.
Dessert is centered around fior di latte, or sweet cream, soft serve ($4.50). The dense ice cream is aces in an affogato, peeking through a murky pour of cold-brew coffee. It turns into something near-spiritual, however, in sundae form. Allergies notwithstanding, get one with every topping available: candied hazelnuts, glugs of olive oil, a scattering of craggy flaked sea salt, and most importantly, evenly distributed drizzles of chocolate sauce spiked with amaro CioCiaro, a digestif from Rome-adjacent Frosinone. It’s a legitimately memorable treat, and one with loads more style than even the wildest of Shake Shack’s frozen custard concrete. While there might not be an IPO in Martina’s immediate future, Anderer would do well to take stock in the ups and downs of the Dow now.
198 East 11th Street