Why the World’s No. 1 Pizza-Maker Refuses to Expand (2024)

As a kid, the country’s premier Neapolitan pizza-maker, Anthony Mangieri, had a simple vision. “I wanted a storefront where I could put a little chair out front,” he says. “I’d go inside, make pizza, come back out and sit in my little chair, and think, ‘This is my life.’”

It’s a dream that launches many kitchen careers: to have a family restaurant that’s as much a part of the neighborhood as the bodega or the barbershop, a home base where you cook and feed friends through the years until you reach decrepitude (at which point you might still be in the dining room, tugging shirtsleeves and telling stories). But these days, as struggling chefs inspect dishes on the pass, they see a foreboding message in the balsamic drizzle: “Expand or perish.” The financial strains on restaurateurs — rising costs for labor, rent, and even garbage pickup and board of health fees — drive many into the plush arms of investors, who can finance not just one restaurant but an entire chain or restaurant group. Often, the chef becomes more of a consultant than a cook (which can sound appealing after a few thousand hours of craning your neck over a cutting board). The pull is strong, so it’s surprising anyone chooses to hold out — especially someone like Mangieri, whose Neapolitan pies are famous.

Mangieri started making pizza at 15. Today, at 52, he still makes every ball of dough at his pizzeria on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Una Pizza Napoletana. The sidewalk out front is too hectic for the little chair of his dreams, but “I’m here, and we’re like an oasis when you come inside,” he says. Some nights at the host station, you’re charmed by Apollonia, his 12-year-old daughter (if she’s not busy doing homework at a table), before being led to your seat through the boisterous dining room. The walls are decorated with family photos and art made by friends. Mangieri makes pizza from an open kitchen, pausing occasionally to scan his domain while a wood fire burns in a glowing tile oven behind him.

This picture is the image he wants to preserve. He thinks it would fade if copied. That is why, in roughly 30 years of business, he’s only ever operated one restaurant, despite a bicoastal move from New York City to San Francisco and back again, and offers from outsiders to expand Una Pizza nationwide.

“I see a lot of chefs quickly go from getting their own place and getting accolades to, within six months, gathering a bunch of investors or getting taken under the wing of a group and opening like four places,” Mangieri says. “It just doesn’t speak to me.”

Mangieri recently sat down with Eater to discuss how and why Una has remained a one-location restaurant after all these years.

Why the World’s No. 1 Pizza-Maker Refuses to Expand (2) Melanie Dunea

Eater: You’ve been in the restaurant business for a long time; you have the awards and the recognition. I think some people are surprised you haven’t created a chain.

Anthony Mangieri: It seems to be the way all the restaurants are going as soon as it has a little success: It plans to scale or join a restaurant group.

People used to have a restaurant and decide it was what they were going to do for the rest of their lives; they would support their family, try to make a great product, and, when they drop dead, it’d close unless it went to their kids.

That was the old way. Realistically, that’s had to change because of the cost of doing business in major cities. With rent, staff, and other little nitty-gritties, people quickly realize they need the support of a restaurant group or investors to take some of that pressure off.

What do you think is lost and gained?

The gain is more on the backside: You probably won’t have to be in there 24/7 or worry about all the bills yourself. Some chefs benefit from [being in] a restaurant group because they just want to do one part of the business.

What’s really lost is the independence of your vision. It’s tough to maintain your personality in a restaurant from start to finish when you have other people involved. Investors think, Oh my God, I love this place. I wanna be a part of it. But as soon as they are, they’re like, Okay, but I wanna make money from this. So, things start to shift or change.

When you come into [an independent restaurant], you can feel [that] this is so and so’s restaurant; the art on the walls, the music they’re playing, the menu decisions are their choice, and what they think matters or what they want to represent. When you start getting involved with investors or restaurant groups, it’s all about scalability. So, all this quirky stuff that made it cool is toned down or thrown out so the restaurant will appeal to people in different parts of the city, the country, and even the world.

It’s hospitality: You want to feel like there’s a soul and a person there, inviting you into their place.

Right. Totally. That is part of what gets lost at scale. There are things that are really good with the scale, for hospitality. There are more rules regarding the way that servers handle themselves. There’s going to be structure, protocols put in place. Whereas if you have a single independent restaurant, sometimes things can be a little loose.

How have you remained independent?

I’ve had plenty of opportunities with people who wanna open in Vegas or Rockefeller Center or upstate. People ask me, “What’s the growth [opportunity] there at the restaurant?” Well, the growth at the restaurant is: I want it to be better than it was last year. I want it to be cooler inside. I want the hospitality to be more caring. I want people to walk in and feel like we are grateful that they’re here, we respect them, and we’re not giving them a sh*tty attitude. Finally, and most importantly, I want the food to be the best it’s ever been. I want, every single week, for Una to be a better version of what it was. That’s the growth until Una closes.

You did enter a partnership with Jeremiah Stone and Fabián von Hauske in 2018 — which fizzled shortly thereafter. What led to that decision, and what did you learn from that experience?

I never had investors from when I opened in 1996 [in New Jersey]. Then, I moved the restaurant to New York [the first time], and then to San Francisco, also without investors. I was really getting burnt out. Business was up and down. The neighborhood was up and down; I lost my lease. So I had planned on selling the San Francisco location, without the name, to help fund another spot in LA, but it didn’t work out. Then, I was thinking of returning to New York, and I met two guys through Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese, who was a friend and fan of Una’s. We hit it off, and I thought, “I’m gonna go in with other people and share the stress.” So, when I opened this location, I had investors and two partners for the first time in my career. Unfortunately for the three of us, we did not really gel.

What do you think the problem was?

Customers were confused. It was my big return to New York after being gone for eight or nine years, and people realized it was not the Una they remembered. Fans of my two partners at the time realized it wasn’t theirs either. We didn’t really make a place that spoke about either thing, which quickly started to pull us apart. We got some bad reviews that didn’t help. And then I realized I was about to be in a really bad spot.

Even though we were partners, it was still called Una Pizza Napoletana. So, ultimately, it was me and my reputation. I made the decision pretty quickly to tell them we needed to separate. We were legally connected until COVID, but before that, I started to change everything back.

I can imagine that validated you and your vision.

The funny thing is, when we were partnered, the pizza was just as good. It’s not like I didn’t know what I was doing all of a sudden. [My partners] were never restricting me and I wasn’t restricting them, but for some reason, once they were not a part of it, the light shined on the pizza again. There was a more clear vision of the restaurant. [Partnership] can work, but for us, it didn’t, and that’s probably because I have such a strong personality. I was independent for so long that by the time [we got to that point, it was after] 20 years of me being in business. It’s similar to people who are single until they’re 60, and then they try to get married. You already have all these ways of doing things that are very particular.

Why the World’s No. 1 Pizza-Maker Refuses to Expand (3) Una Pizza Napoletana
Why the World’s No. 1 Pizza-Maker Refuses to Expand (4) Una Pizza Napoletana

I could probably have had a ton of locations by now all over the country, and we didn’t because it’s me, my partner Christina, my daughter, and my family. I didn’t do this just for me. But that doesn’t mean if you want to have 20 restaurants, you can’t be an amazing chef. It would be unfair for me to say that because everyone needs to have their angle. Like me with Genio.

You’re talking about your frozen pizza line, Genio, that you started recently. Does revenue from that support your restaurant?

Genio hasn’t made revenue yet. It’s a startup with investors, and that’s completely different. It’s so separate from Una and unfortunately can’t pay Una’s way. Genio hopefully does pay out on the backside. But the idea is that it’s a couple of steps removed from me. I’m passionate about Genio, but clearly, not every doughball is connected to me.

Everyone is looking for creative ways to stay in business and pay the bills.

The restaurant industry’s economics, down to staffing, are a nightmare. The minimum wage keeps going up, and if you wanna live in New York City, the rent’s 6 grand a month, so you need the minimum wage to go up [to maintain a livable wage]. But as a small restaurant owner, if the person coming in off the street is starting at a certain point, how do I show appreciation to somebody who’s been here longer? There’s no variance now.

How are you managing that?

My restaurant is probably a little strange. Everyone, even the front of house, all arrive at the same time, and they all leave at the same time. And all the tips are split evenly. Everybody does everything. We don’t even have a dedicated dishwasher or busser. So, everyone mops, everyone does the bathrooms. Every night, another server does the dish pit. At nine o’clock, one of the servers goes back into the dish pit, and someone else covers their tables for that last little bit. It’s how we do it so everyone leaves at the same time at night, and it’s more united. There’s a feeling that we all suffered through it.

It’s usually an interesting conversation when people apply to work here. I tell them that everything in the restaurant is their responsibility except prepping the food and making pizza. Some people really love the fact that we’re all in it together.

I’m in the restaurant between eight and nine every morning. If I’m lucky, I get an hour to pick my daughter up from school in the afternoon. Then, I return to work until midnight or later with the whole team. It is a downside, but I know I’ve done my job when I walk out of here at the end of the night, and can’t think straight, and my face hurts. [Laughs]

So, what do you think the future will be for the restaurant?

I see it getting better and continuing on its current course. Obviously, I’d love to see my daughter take it one day: She grew up in it. She doesn’t really care that much about it when we’re not in here, but when she’s in here, she’s incredible.

Recently, I was in the pizza station with one of my guys — we’re always looking and watching the room together — and I noticed one table had to be organized. A candle was crooked on this one bigger VIP table that sits off by itself. A bunch of people working on the floor had walked past and didn’t arrange it. And I’m like, “Man, I wish somebody would. It’s driving me nuts.” As I’m saying that, my daughter walks past, stops in her tracks, turns, adjusts everything the way it should be, and keeps on going. My coworker and I looked at each other and said, “Yeah.” [Laughs]

But I don’t know if that’s possible, and I would never force her to. There’s a part of me that always thinks when I drop dead or retire, that will be the end of the restaurant, and that’s sort of the beauty of it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mike Diago is a high school social worker and writer based in New York’s Hudson Valley.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin
Copy edited by Cynthia Puleo

Why the World’s No. 1 Pizza-Maker Refuses to Expand (2024)


Why won't my pizza dough expand? ›

1) There simply isn't enough yeast in your formula. Trying increasing your yeast by 10% increments in future batches to see if you get the proper rise. 2) The dough is too cold coming off the mixer. Targeting an 80F dough temperature for overnight, refrigerated dough is a good starting point.

Why doesn't my pizza dough stretch? ›

Under-proofed pizza dough is hard to stretch and dense. An over-proofed dough will stretch too thin and won't spring up when you put it in the oven.

Who is world's greatest pizza maker? ›

Your mind probably jumps to Italy. To an old man, bent crooked over the dough he's kneading, a recipe his family have been perfecting for generations in their little backstreet Neapolitan restaurant. The truth is nothing of the sort; in fact, the world's greatest pizza maker is 32-year-old Michele Pascarella.

Who was the first person who made pizza? ›

Pizza was first created by the Baker named Raffeale Esposito in Naples, Italy. He was willing to invent Pizza which is totally different from other Types of Pizzas in Naples. He first came up with the idea of savoring the Pizza with cheese. Later, he added tomato sauce underneath.

Why is my dough not expanding? ›

Yeast is too hot Yeast may have been dissolved in water that was too hot, or the liquid ingredients in the recipe may be too hot, causing the yeast to die. Yeast needs to be warm - not too hot, not too cold. Yeast is too cold If the other ingredients are too cold, it could cause some of the yeast to die.

How to fix dough that won't stretch? ›

The power of patience: Even gluten needs to rest

If you start to stretch your pizza dough and it fights back, the simplest solution is to exercise patience. “Walk away and let the dough rest for 15 minutes, longer if necessary,” Clara says.

How long to leave pizza dough out before stretching? ›

Before you begin stretching, warm up your cold dough for at least 30 minutes at room temperature. Gluten, the protein that makes pizza dough chewy, is tighter in cold conditions like the fridge, which is why cold pizza dough will stretch out and snap back just like a rubber band.

What is the best flour to stretch pizza dough? ›

The all purpose helps prevent the dough from sticking and the semolina flour is slightly coarser and helps the pizza slide off the peel and on to the baking steel. If you don't have semolina, you can use 100% all-purpose flour.

What is the number 1 pizza company in the world? ›

Domino's dominates the pizza industry as it accounted for 42% of pizza sales in the US for Q4, 2021.

Who is the best pizza maker of all time? ›

Gemignani is a pizzaiolo and chef, having won 13 world titles in pizza making and opening numerous restaurants. He has appeared on multiple reality television series including Food Network Challenge, Bar Rescue on Spike TV, as well as on The Travel Channel and CNN.

What is the fastest pizza maker? ›

Mendes was able to win the title of the World's Fastest Pizza Maker as she made three large pizzas in an astonishing 39.2 seconds. She is also the first woman to claim victory in this prestigious competition.

Who invented pizza kids? ›

Many people credit baker Raffaele Esposito from the Naples region of Italy for first creating the dish. Others believe that the history of pizza dates far further back than Esposito's era of the late 1800s. Much of the debate comes down to what you consider a "real pizza" and the evolution of food over the centuries.

Who invented pizza with pineapple? ›

And despite the name, it did not come from the US island state of Hawaii either. The pizza was actually created in Canada in 1962 by a Greek immigrant called Sam Panopoulos. Panopoulos, along with his brothers, owned a restaurant in the province of Ontario.

How old is the oldest pizza? ›

Modern pizza evolved from similar flatbread dishes in Naples, Italy, between the 16th and mid-18th century. The word pizza was first documented in AD 997 in Gaeta and successively in different parts of Central and Southern Italy.

What to do with pizza dough that doesn't rise? ›

To grow, yeast needs a warm, moist environment. In most cases, the dough's volume can be increased simply by putting it on the counter at room temperature. If the dough is still unrisen after this, you may need to raise the oven temperature to help the yeast go to work.

How long does it take for pizza dough to expand? ›

If you're planning to make pizza today, then give the dough a rise. Clean out the mixing bowl, coat it with a little oil, and transfer the dough back inside. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and let the dough rise until doubled in size, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

What can I do with dough that didn't rise? ›

But almost as good as a proofing box is taking a Mason jar filled halfway up with water, microwaving it for two minutes, then putting your bowl of dough into the microwave with the jar to rise. The other thing you can do is place your lidded container or bowl of dough into a second, larger bowl of warm water.

How do you force pizza dough to rise? ›

Place the covered dough near, but not on, the preheated oven. Some cleared off counter space right next to the oven will work. The heat coming from the oven will speed up the rising process. Let the dough rise until it's doubled in size.

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