AJ Capella and Anthony Mangieri on summer, the shutdown, and the new normal.
By Andy Clurfeld
The world is a different place than it was at the start of this year, or even at the start of spring. Now, as summer dawns, it’s challenging to imagine what the traditional season of sun- and-fun capped by a lazy, long dinner at a favorite restaurant might bring. Restaurants? Some open, but differently; some closed, sadly permanently; most in a state of ﬂux.
We speak to two acclaimed restaurant chefs, both New Jersey-born and bred and Garden State loyalists to their core.
Anthony Mangieri, nationally renowned and referred to as the Pope of Pizza, started his career in the early-, mid-1990s in a slip of a storefront in Red Bank, where he baked authentic Neapolitan breads. A few years later, he opened his ﬁrst Una Pizza Napoletana in Point Pleasant Beach, before moving Una Pizza ﬁrst to New York’s East Village, then to San Francisco’s Mission District, next back to New York, on the Lower East Side, and ﬁnally, home again, in downtown Atlantic Highlands. He is, rightly, credited with inspiring a new generation of pizzaiolos and showing pizza-eaters that his pizza, based on his otherworldly dough (starter born in 1996), is the original “transporting” pizza.
AJ Capella, a rising star in the culinary world, garnered respect and devoted fans during his turns at the Ryland Inn, Whitehouse Station; the Aviary in New York, and A Toute Heure in Cranford, before taking the top chef spot at Jockey Hollow Bar + Kitchen in Morristown. Now 30, he’s spent half his life working in restaurant kitchens and developing a style that marries the soul of authentic European peasant cookery with globally accented high-style ﬁnishes. Mangieri and Capella, each working and percolating these past months, take stock and reﬂect, refresh and predict.
Anthony Mangieri’s Una Pizza on Orchard Street, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, has closed completely during the COVID-19-induced pandemic; however, Mangieri had, on Feb. 28, opened his new Una Pizza Napoletana at 91A First Avenue in Atlantic Highlands. That Una Pizza has remained open, serving takeaway pizza Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Expanded hours are planned as restrictions on commerce ease.
“This shutdown has given me time to reconnect. It’s a forced shutdown, but it’s given me more time with my family and to do things other than restaurant cooking.
“The issue is not so much the shutdown, but the reality of restaurants. What is that reality? For me, we’ve had to revert to minimal staff, which we can do and still do our pizza. But what is the reality for bigger restaurants with bigger staffs? The hardest transition at this time is for those restaurants.
“Do they go at half-capacity for six months? Most ﬁne-dining restaurants will not come out of that. Elaborate menus need bigger staffs. I understand adapting to the time, but ﬁne-dining take-away?
“I had no interest in doing take-away; it’s a different product. I’ve never myself had delivery (food), ever, and neither has my wife (Ilaria, who is from Naples and has a background in classical music and communications). The shutdown didn’t change my business model, my approach. I’ve had to limit ingredients, because I can’t now get some of them. I’m now using mozzarella made in New Jersey, from a company that imports buffalo mozzarella from Italy and makes it here.
“So I make the amount of pizza I can myself handle, about 90 pizzas a day, and that’s what I’ll do. We’ll be open four to ﬁve hours a day, and I’m toying with the idea of taking some reservations (if dine-in restrictions are eased) so I can control things.
“I get to work at 7, 7:30 in the morning, prep for hours, then make pizza the whole time we’re open, then clean up. It’s intense—the mental and physical focus. To open with outside tables—that would cost lots and lots of money: new tables, umbrellas, staff going in and out.
“Right now, I’m excited about the new ingredients I’ve got—pepperoni, peppers, great basil.”
Anthony Mangieri starts talking about the great jars of imported tuna he’s been tasting, then about chocolate, and ice cream, and gelato. The best ingredients lure him, inspire him and, inevitably, propel him to share them. Always have, always will.
“I was in Italy when this whole thing started. I was in Bologna, late February, Modena, having Lambrusco at a winery, tortellini en brodo everywhere, eating mortadella every day! Gnocchi frito—everywhere. It’s fried dough that expands and hollows out. Super-thin, ﬁlled with air. It’s served like a bread.
“We were eating a lot of a tangy, creamy farm cheese that’s spreadable, soft, with thick curds. I was talking to Sal (Pisani, a cheesemaker who operates Jersey Girl Cheese, and a friend of Capella’s) and he told me he’d work on making it here.
“Anyway, we got one of the last ﬂights back. I quarantined; didn’t go anywhere, didn’t leave my house except to walk my dog. Then the shutdown.
“We cooked and cooked at home. My girlfriend is a pescatarian, so I don’t eat meat at my house. Cooking at home was fun, not rushed.
“Now, I don’t know about high-end dining, which is what I’ve always done. I don’t think it’s going to be back any time soon. Takeout, yes, doing online groceries, yes. I’m organizing all of that now at Jockey Hollow.
“But I’m also thinking, ‘What can I be doing differently? How can I reinvent, say, a fast-food sandwich? I’m thinking, say, crispy lamb neck instead of a chicken sandwich. ‘Cause high-end restaurants, if they have to cut back from doing 400 or 500 covers to 125 people, that’s not workable. You’ll have to do take-out plus a grocery in the basement.
“I’m thinking, coming up with ideas. A 10-, 12-seat café for high-end dining, plus take-out. All locally sourced foods on the menu. A two-sided place. I think a lot of opportunity can come out of this pandemic, and the new post-pandemic restaurant models will change. The days of high-end dining as we know it are over.
“I’m thinking of a menu with scallop ravioli, with a whole scallop inside, poached, with compound butter, as the ravioli cooks. A smoked duck egg custard. You know, a riff on chawanmushi, Japanese steamed custard. But ﬁnish it with a tiny dice of Taylor ham, top it with cheese and egg. Classic New Jersey!”
Then AJ Capella talks through a menu for this new-restaurant dream that fuses the world’s cuisines with the Garden State culinary traditions and ingredients. His food always will have a heartfelt New Jersey accent.