Did anyone really think New York needed another pizza spot?
Two guys did see the need for more pies: Danny Meyer, one of the most successful and prescient independent restaurateurs in the city’s history, and his partner Chef Nick Anderer. Meyer is the man behind the Shake Shack chain–whose IPO, announced today, is estimated at $100,000,000–and a dozen or so fine dining Manhattan eateries under his Union Square Hospitality Group. And he knows more than all of us. Sadly, Meyer’s first restaurant, Union Square Cafe, is being forced to relocate after 30-years due to an insane rent hike, which the operator eulogized/issued a call to arms against greedy landlords in a NY Times oped.
This fall, Marta opened at the redone Martha Washington Hotel in Manhattan’s Flatiron district. It is a spinoff of the ultra-successful Roman trattoria Maialino at the Grammercy Park Hotel. Marta is a Roman pizzeria. Rome is not known for its pizza. The gamble would seem risky, but this is USHG, and Meyer rarely fails. Roman pizza is a snack food, a side-show to that city’s culinary focus on long meals of starch and protein, vino and pesca. Yet Marta got very good reviews for a pizzeria, scoring two exhubrent stars in both the Times and New York Magazine for its crisp-but-not-cracking thin-crust pies.
Chef Nick Anderer runs the kitchen at both Marta and Maialino. On a recent weekday, I ate lunch at Marta. The menu is the same as dinner, a short treatise on pizza, with seven or eight starters with a six main courses. The restaurant is open to the hotel’s lobby. Ceilings soar 20-feet, and like the formerly Meyer-owned Eleven Madison Park, a second level dining area overlooks the main floor. Lacking the Deco decadence of EMP, Marta still manages fine design. White walled and steel fixtured minimalism face two mirroring pizza ovens that look out to the dining room and further to the windows on 29th Street. A “pizza bar” surrounds the oven, and many, including some Marta staff, say this is the place to sit.
Eating with a compatriot–actually he’s a seditious traitor who went to Cuba before Obama reestablished ties–we sampled both the much hyped mushroom-laden pie and a tripe one. The latter was perfect; the former, dry, critically overrated. Our starter: seared mackerel, and delicious. We saw staff who’d defected from other restaurants we love (Toro, mainly) and watched Anderer run the kitchen like Bill Belichick: quiet and serious, but with a secret sense of joy. Dave Matthews Band tunes segued into new indie pop. While the cost was high per pie–$14 to $19–it was a worthy meal.
To understand Marta’s simplicity, one must marvel at Maialino’s complexity. The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and late night. I go there often, at off times. At Breakfast, sun slices the barroom. Its coffee program matches the kitchen’s professionalism. It’s the only place outside a diner where I will order egg dishes. Long lunches are so recommended with the long menu and wine list. When in a Roman trattoria…eat a long Euro lunch.
Dinner can be a tasting affair if you ask your server to let it ride. About a week ago, I stopped in late night. Bar manager Chris Johnson served us some new cocktails. A decent late-night burger was on menu. Sweetbreads wrapped in prosciutto, too. The pastas all worked. The wine list put together by beverage director Jeff Kellogg was unreal. Italian wine is hard to master, but here we have a masterpiece.
Marta and Maialino are both large spots, serving 200-plus at brunch, dinner. But USHG is the world’s gold standard in service and one never feels like a small fish.
Below, Chef Anderer answers some questions via email on his new restaurant and the life of a chef.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Manhattan on the upper Upper West Side, on 116th Street.
How did it feel to get two stars from the Times? Twice?
The star rating actually means way less to me than what people actually say, write and ultimately feel when they leave the restaurant. But at the same time, it’s always satisfying to have your hard work recognized by critics, so for that recognition I’m very grateful.
What’s main difference in your work at Marta from Maialino?
Both restaurants, despite their similar inspiration origin (Rome), are so completely different from each other. The more casual pizzeria concept at Marta has a younger, more energetic vibe in the room and the open pizza kitchen affords me a chance to interact with guests while they eat–this has been a fun twist in my day to day work.
At Maialino, what was your biggest learning experience?
It was the first restaurant I ever opened as the Executive Chef, so I learned the importance of leaning on your team to help muscle through tough times. Cooking is a team sport and I didn’t fully realize the meaning of that until I was able to see a team build a restaurant together from scratch. Everything from menu planning to execution/preparation of a dish requires outside input and collaboration with other chefs/cooks. I also learned that pasta is truly my favorite food…hands down.
Why pizza? And moreover, Roman pizza?
As chefs tend to do when they start working on a project, in this case for me it was Maialino, I started to wonder what the next step will be. My mind kept going back to Rome where I spent so much time as a student and as a cook. Rome’s thin-crust pizza seemed like a logical next step and in a city overrun with Neapolitan-inspired pies, I thought that NY would be ready to see something different.
Do you like working with the smaller menu or larger one at Maialino?
The easy answer is that smaller menus are more manageable day to day–it’s nice to be able to focus on fewer items. But as far as pizzerias go, I’d say that Marta has pretty robust non-pizza offerings. 10-12 antipasti and salads, 7-8 grilled entrees, 4-5 side dishes. It’s certainly enough to keep my mind busy every day.
What other restaurants are world class in NYC, underrated or not.
For pizza, Roberta’s really kicks ass. For Italian, I love both Carbone and Lupa. I think Estela has been excellent from the start. And for late night, The Spotted Pig can’t be beat.
Where do you live, where do you hang?
I live in Downtown NYC not far from Maialino in the East Village area. Although I love that neighborhood, I prefer hanging out on the Lower East Eide and east Chinatown. Great bars – Attaboy and 169 being my standbys–and good grub too-Congee Village rocks and my new favorite is Le French Diner on Orchard.
How’s it working out with Maialino Chef ed Cuisine Jason Pfeifer, are you in both kitchens most nights?
Jason brings a high level of technical expertise to the Maialino kitchen having worked at Gramercy Tavern, Per Se and Noma–all world class restaurants. In the past few months as we’ve been in the throws of Marta’s opening, I have pretty much left the Maialino reigns in his hands and I’ll check back in with him and the team periodically. Now that Marta is becoming more established, I’ll be sharing my time more equally between the two kitchens.
Where is your favorite eating area of the world, outside Rome?
Japan, more specifically Tokyo – sushi, sushi, sushi. I lived there for a year a while back and am dying to get back to eat more.
Speaking of which–are you sick of Roman food yet?
Never. I eat at least one pizza a day at Marta and never skip my pasta fix when I go back to Maialino.
Worst thing about NYC food scene right now.
Rent! Landmark restaurants are losing out on their homes due to uncontrollable inflation. Union Square Cafe and WD-50 being two of the most recent victims. It’s a real dilemma.
Something that people wouldn’t guess about you…
Despite my predominant Italophile tendencies and a general slant towards more casual food/drink, I’m pretty obsessed with old French wine – particularly Burgundy and Champagne. Don’t judge.