451 King St., Downtown
Lunch & Dinner
Among the techno thump of Upper King Street, where you can drop a thousand bucks on a designer faucet while eating handmade gelato, Monza, the new brick-oven pizza joint from the same posse that birthed Raval, satisfies even the most jaded Eurotrash fashionista. The Upper King "design district," a good 10 years of gentrification in the making, draws New York pretenders with little studio flats full of Eames chairs and fake Warhol prints as readily as college frat boys looking to ogle scantily-clad girls and drink imported beers. Monza plays its part in this scene, but behind the chic facade you will find beautiful, thin, handmade pizza that shatters in places where sauce has not tread.
People who slurp down big, hand-tossed pies down the street won't find salvation in the paper-thin crusts of imported flour, nor the wood-fired char of Monza's single-serving pies, but for seven bucks, the "Osca," a crackling round of dough lightly painted with tomato, oregano, and garlic oil, brings a flavorful bargain to the table. The elegant simplicity of Italian cuisine comes perfectly expressed among the mozzarella, tomatoes, basil, and arugula that top the thin sheets of dough. Such pies, the descendants of that primordial ball of dough pounded flat and seared atop fire-heated stone, almost become art themselves in such a fashionable setting.
Monza's interior revs with the energy of its eponymous racetrack, an exposed full-length kitchen revealing the frenetic construction of the delicious pies. The warm texture of the brick walls contrast the cold stare of brushed aluminum and the hot glare of spotlights. Its style evokes the fast cars screaming around the most famous racetrack on the Italian boot, even if the notion of "authentic" Neapolitan pizza, right down to "filtered and pH-balanced" water "kneaded in an imported mixer from Naples" doesn't exactly correspond with making race cars, a Northern Italian enterprise. The real Monza is just north of Milan, worlds away from the Southern coast and its Arab and Greek roots.
Of course, pizza is a national pastime in Italy, the street food equivalent of the New York hot dog stand, and Monza certainly dishes up some delicious stuff, even if a true Neapolitan might take exception to a pizza joint that is so rigidly authentic that it won't allow substitutions, yet offers no capers on the entire menu. But what it does offer are brilliant combinations of fresh, often local ingredients. The "Materassi" ($10) named for the famous speedster who left this world along with 27 spectators in a fireball of fury during the 1928 Italian Grand Prix, is as clean and sharp as a Ferrari's sleek lines. Like all the pies, it sports a well-balanced tomato sauce under oozing dollops of mozzarella and fresh basil leaves — so thin that you may have to eat it with a fork and knife, but bursting with flavor.
My favorite pizza is the "Count Louis" ($12), a pepperoni job of sorts, topped with mozzarella, roasted mushrooms, and wilted rapini. I get it with the optional anchovies, which can be added to any pie for $2. A local farm-raised egg from Celeste Albers, roasted right along with the rest, will set you back just a buck.
The antipasti and salads are equally valid; the "Marinated Baby Beet Salad" ($6) surrounds bloody orbs of beets with the peppery bite of fresh arugula. I would probably prefer a big dollop of goat cheese to the salty ricotta that currently resides in the bowl, but it's a fresh, quality preparation nevertheless, as is the "Wood Roasted Asparagus Salad" ($6), with big fat spears of green, a shaving of parmesan, and a fat egg draped sunny-side up across the stack.
The wine service exemplifies the whole establishment. Bottles from the short but well-chosen list come to the table without "proper" (read: French) opening and pouring — and I like this. It's a pizzeria, after all, and you drink from short little glasses, something the old men in the Tuscan countryside would sip grappa from. Monza is laid-back and stylish, with attention paid to the most minute of details while maintaining a carefree vibe. The spectacle is reserved for the interactions of the people themselves, and that's about as Italian as it gets.