It seems like every ambitious chef these days is looking for a way to cash in—a commercial concept to bankroll their passion projects and line their coffers. Tom Colicchio has his sandwich shops. Mario Batali pushes bright-orange clogs and sauce in a jar. Even Spain’s Ferran Adria opened his own fast-food burger spot a few years back.
Michael White, the big talent behind Marea and Morini, seems to be placing his bets on populist pizza. At his new East Village pie joint, Nicoletta, he showcases playful ideas of what pizza can be, translating the traditional components of eggplant parmigiana, spaghetti carbonara and a porchetta sandwich all into toppings for dough. The chef, one of New York’s most rarefied pasta purveyors, is at his most gimmicky here—which might be just fine, if those pizzas were great.
The cheap thrills begin with beer snack cicchetti, the first little bites that kick off a meal. Mozzarella sticks with marinara for dipping are pretty classic here, save for the hunks of warm mortadella under their golden, spiced crust. Risotto balls, meanwhile, channel lasagna bolognese, with meat sauce inside and béchamel in the bowl underneath.
These junky snacks—tasty like any mass-market combo of salt, crunch and fat—give way on the menu to more sizable starters. A Caesar-like “Romana” salad, with romaine, radicchio, white anchovies and croutons in a rich, creamy dressing, is a fine way to begin. Avoid the generic red-sauced meatballs, though, and skip the rubbery stuffed calamari filled with a strange pungent mix of soppressata, zucchini and bread crumbs.
Everything here seems designed for easy replication, like Wolfgang Puck pizzerias, with signature pies in branded boxes, logoed glasses and tables outfitted with custom-made pizza stands (no new branches are planned just yet). The dark tavern space, generically attractive with its high ceilings and rough-hewn brick walls, looks like a neighborhood joint in Anywheresville, USA.
And the pizza served inside isn’t typical of any newfangled or old-school style in New York. It’s not a classic floppy slice, Staten Island Sicilian or delicately crenulated new Neapolitan. It’s more like cheap Midwestern delivery—White hails from Wisconsin originally—designed to travel without going soggy or limp. These are Big Ten pies, thick and spongy with barely a lip around the edges. The base—oily-crisp as if it had been deep-fried—has Pizza Hut undertones, with extra gooey cheese falling in elastic drips on the table. The ostensible attraction, the added value, is what else comes on top—the sometimes-clever combinations of top-shelf ingredients.
The “Parmigiana,” with fresh ricotta and thick slices of breaded eggplant, is among the more successful signature pies (it tastes just like the dish that inspired it). The “Carbonara” is a tasty facsimile too, with crispy pancetta, an eggy sheen and plenty of fresh ground black pepper. But other high-concept combos fall pretty flat. The “Porchetta” buries the lead, hiding its roast pork slices under far too much red sauce and cheese. The “Tartufata,” with wild mushrooms and truffle cream, has an extraneous layer of cooked ham and virtually no truffle taste. Even a seemingly sprightly vegetarian pie with zucchini blossoms, summer squash and basil pesto has a gut-busting volume of cheese.
Each pizza feeds two ordinary appetites, but even the best pies—heavy and grease-soaked—are like lead going down. Scanning the restaurant, you won’t find a table without leftovers to go.
You’ll want to stop short of your limit and share a soft-serve sundae or two—fior di latte ice cream with your choice of fancy mix-ins. These sweet treats, like Pinkberry for paesanos—with delicious and inspired toppings like rosemary caramel popcorn, polenta streusel and chili-peanut-toffee sauce might be the best things you’ll eat here. Americans love pizza, certainly, but Michael White’s future might be in soft-serve instead.
Eat this: Risotto balls with meat sauce, Romana salad, Parmigiana pizza, Carbonara pizza, fior di latte soft-serve sundae.
Drink this: Nicoletta, which serves only beer and wine, has no physical bar. The house brew, Birra Morini, a light lager made for Michael White’s restaurants by Wisconsin’s Lakefront brewery, goes down easy with the pizzas ($7 glass/ $24 pitcher). The Calatroni pinot nero, a fruit-forward red wine from Lombardy, is also a great match ($11 glass/ $40 bottle).
Sit here: Marble-topped tables for two fill the middle of the room, with larger wood tables spread around the edges. Those side tables offer more room to spread out, even if you come with a big group (as you should).
Conversation piece: As a teenager, Michael White landed his first job in the restaurant business at a pizzeria, Domenico’s, in his hometown of Beloit, Wisconsin.