Marta: Roman Holiday
Tossing Shake Shack to the wolves of Wall Street and waking at the tone of a billion dollars is not Danny Meyer’s only recent score. Add to that Marta, where he’s partnered with his Maialino chef Nick Anderer in the celebration of Roman pizza. That’s the prize here.
Who was it that said “the best lover would turn into a pizza at 3 am?” I always put sex before pizza. It probably wasn’t me. Maybe Woody Allen. Still, I’ve fallen for many a pizza in my time. I’m not going to claim I’ve loved pizza longer than any other restaurant critic still forking around. But I was already a fan of Arturo’s coal oven-scorched pizza on Houston Street before New York first beguiled the 1968 city. And I welcomed Mezzaluna’s dinner plate-size pies (and the adorable young Italian Romeos who tended tiny tables) in 1984. Long before the gospel of Neapolitan pizza took over our town, I had weighed the virtues of Goldberg’s Pizzeria vs. Prima Donna’s and Totonno’s. Click here for the early “Joys of Pizza.”
Marta’s is now my favorite pizza. I love that thin crisp of curling crust, blackened along the edge. I’m okay with a classic margherita, as long as I can follow it with something creative, ideally sensuous and outrageous. Marta’s patate alla carbonara pie, for one, where the ingredients of that Roman pasta — chunks of cured pork jowl, black pepper, pecorino and egg — get layered on sliced potatoes and seared in one of the twin black ovens hunkered behind a counter where solos and walk-ins can eat and monitor the action.
Indeed, the first bite of that stylish Roman pie got me out of a major grump. I don’t plan my pizza cravings 28 days in advance as Marta seems to require, and I don’t gather companions counting on a triumphant walk-in. A friend who knew someone reserved for us, and I was in a snit waiting twenty minutes for our table. “They’ve paid their check, but they’re not moving,” was the litany from the scurrying graduate students of Danny Meyers’ Academy of Hospitality tending the podium.
Seated at last. A suit offers Prosecco on the house. He offers something called Champagne. But we’re sipping $10 cocktails and the “Aged” Negroni from its cute little bottle (at least clever marketing has no calories!). The billowy pizza from the “Bianche” list is followed by the salsiccia with pork sausage from the “Rosse” list and I’m mellowing. Maccheroni meatballs oozing fontina, why not? And the crisp seafood fritto misto is impressively fried.
Chef de Cuisine Joe Tarasco himself comes out of the kitchen to shave white truffles on yet another pie – a $60 gift of apology — but the wounds have already faded. With half a dozen starters, green cauliflower from the oven, and crusty short rib to share, just one entrée is even too much. That week I might easily have written a glowing first impression, well — almost. Maybe I needed to taste more pizzas, I decided. Maybe I just wanted a reason to hurry back.
All the critics had chimed in by January when I finally put together half a dozen pals and returned. The fritto misto had vanished from the menu. The disappointing eggplant parmigiana was no more. American wagyu tartare at $35, a tasting of pecorino, and a dish called Bruschetta Strappata — torn pizza bread with ricotta, pistachio and honey — did not call out to me as essential antipasti.
Our server is elusive — attentive briefly but now dashing between tables — as we try to get his attention to order drinks. Then the drinks seem elusive too. But the white pizza special of the night — a fontina blanket piled with cooked coppa and slivers of red onion under a thatch of arugula — hits the table faster than a speeding bullet.
“Where are our drinks?” Belle wonders. The slip in boozy protocol feels strange. But the pizza with its charred crisp edges and dazzling frisson of lemon is instantly compelling. The less toasted Amatriciana pie with a smart hit of chile heat cannot compete. I try to persuade my friends we need another pizza.
But at last cocktails arrive, reducing the tension. We’re not alcoholics. We’re just spoiled by eating out six nights a week. And the table is quickly filling with small dishes: snipped green herb risotto croquettes (suppli), and a trio of rabbit meatballs with three rounds of whipped ricotta alongside. Neither dish is particularly distinguished but there’s definitely no room for another pie.
All of us fall for the salty heat of the Calabrian chile-loaded seppioline — wilted green onion sprawling atop grilled baby cuttlefish and chunks of potato. Layers of bright flavors in a tiny portion of bay scallop crudo, under curls of treviso and shaved pecans, make a dish that’s a far cut above the usual pizza parlor diversions.
We’ve agreed the six of us will share three entrées from the fire-spitting grill. They arrive all at once on wooden platters. Lamb, chicken and pork sausages piled atop broccoli rabe are wreathed in sweet smokiness from the flames. Lemon and soft cloves of melted garlic accompany marvelous beer-brined chicken.
But the flames have transformed mere pork ribs in a way that is almost scary. They are unusually scorched, piggy, fatty, chewy and delicious. I can imagine devouring all four ribs and their fatty burnt ends. There are sunchokes too, slow-roasted in the oven, and then flash-fried, sweet from a tossing in maple syrup, tangy from a lemon squirt and pungent fermented anchovy sauce. When we manage to tear ourselves away from the sausages, there is cabbage alla piastra too — raw ribbons seared on the plancha, then tossed with lemon and olive oil and flecked with hot pickled chile.
Olive oil dominates desserts also, as in kabocha squash and olive oil cake with whipped cream, and olive oil affogato — green oil with honeycomb candy, vanilla ice cream, kumquat and blood orange. Sweet risotto buckwheat tart with citrus is good enough. The must finale for me is the ice cream panini — the chocolate cookie salted, the mascarpone gelato smoked.
It might seem odd that there’s no pasta on this Italianate menu, even as the more labor-intensive starters have disappeared, too. It makes the evening easier for the kitchen, Chef-Partner Anderer explains.
Does that set up Marta as a pizza concept rehearsing for a Shake Shack-style roll out to the neighborhoods? To South Beach, Las Vegas, Hong Kong and Dubai? With the tinnitus of a billion dollar market triumph still echoing, the unassuming young man from St. Louis can take a deep breath and find time to consider it.
Marta. 29 East 29th Street between Madison and Park Avenues in the Martha Washington Hotel. 212 651 3800. Monday through Friday: Breakfast 7 to 10 am. Coffee & Pastries 10 to 11:20 am. Lunch 11:30 am to 3 pm. Pizza and dessert 3 to 5 pm. Dinner 5 to 11:30 pm. Saturday and Sunday: Coffee and Pastries 7 to 11 am, Brunch 11 am to 3 pm. Pizza & Dessert 3 to 5 pm. Dinner 5 to 11:30 pm.