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Business of the Month: Unregular Pizza, 135 4th Avenue

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Eating of the forbidden fruit separated us from God, made us know shame, and condemned us to a life of toil and strife. Some lessons, however, never quite take. And the temptation of the forbidden remains a perennial motivation; one that happens to have brought to our neighborhood the extraordinary pizza served by our October Business of the Month. Unregular Pizza at 135 Fourth Avenue at 13th Street are purveyors of high-end but yet affordable Roman-style slices that achieve excellence by hewing to tradition, and then surpass it by dint of imaginative flair. And that flair extends to a creative (pre-modern) payment system that offers the opportunity to barter for your slice, or sing for your proverbial supper.

Gabriele Lamonaca grew up in Rome in a household that, though loving, limited access to sweets. This inspired in him what would become a lifelong interest, not just in sweets, but in novel gastronomic experiences, and it may just have set him on a career path towards the restaurant industry. It was not, however, all food austerity in the Lamonaca household. Gabriele has fond childhood recollections of his parents’ cooking and remembers pizza-night Fridays as a special treat. It may have been frozen, microwavable pizza (yes, dear reader, even in Rome), but it remains a happy memory that may have, many years later, given focus to his culinary pursuits.

Gabriele moved to New York to improve his English and go to college. Upon arrival, a family friend helped him get settled and offered him a job bussing tables at his midtown restaurant, La Masseria. There, Gabriele fell in love with the energy and excitement of restaurant work. In the years that followed, he worked for a wide range of restaurant-related businesses, including both casual and fine dining establishments, as well as suppliers; and he developed a familiarity with multiple aspects of the industry. By the time he started working as a manager at local Italian eatery Cacio e Vino in 2017, Gabriele was already developing ideas for opening his own place, a Roman-style pizza joint.

The obvious volatility of restaurants and saturation of pizzerias in town should have convinced Gabriele that opening a pizza place was, at best, a chancey proposition. Instead, his survey of the restaurant landscape led him to the opposite conclusion: if there were a lot of pizzerias in New York, then New Yorkers must eat a lot of pizza. Success, he surmised, would merely depend on separating yourself from the pack. And yet, his enthusiasm for opening a pizzeria did not blind him to the sober realization that he had absolutely no idea how to do so. To address this limitation, he got himself hired by a chain that, in his estimation, had figured out the ins and outs of running a fast casual restaurant: Chipotle. Gabriele describes his training there as a sort of bootcamp in restaurant management that covered everything from onion chopping to bathroom cleaning, and that impressed upon him the importance of method and of discipline. Having assimilated this training, he, assembled a small team of partners, figured out how to develop a business plan, and started looking for locations and investors, pitching his idea to everyone he came across (around two hundred people, by his count). And then the pandemic hit. 

While sheltering in place with his hard-fought business plans laying by the wayside, Gabriele did what many New Yorkers did. He started experimenting in his kitchen and publicizing his creations through the last refuge of the socially distanced — social media. As was not the case with most of us, however, there was method in his madness… One of Gabriele’s friends, a home-sick fellow-Roman, saw his posts and asked if he would make for her the typical Roman pizza con patate. He readily agreed but did not feel comfortable accepting the payment that she offered in return. Since she insisted, however, on compensating Gabriele for his efforts, he consented to receiving in exchange a set of home-made mixed drinks.

Soon, others started following her example and gradually gave rise to a bona fide pizza barter operation that has since yielded countless memorable exchanges involving food (German-made German cheesecake!) and experiences (horseback riding classes!). Somehow, the New York Post caught wind of these developments and wrote a small piece about them. Before long, just about every media outlet seemed to be knocking on Gabriele’s door, and word of his pizza bartering received coverage even in national Italian media.

All this publicity allowed Gabriele to secure in just a few months the financing he still needed to afford the right location. He also received an additional boost from the pandemic itself. Gabriele wanted to locate his pizzeria in an area frequented by a mix of people — residents, office workers, tourists, students — and had identified the area south of Union Square as ideal. When Gabriele first looked, however, he found nothing. Landlords only wanted chains and places with long track records and deep backing. The pandemic changed all that and made available the perfect spot, a small space ideally suited for the delivery and takeout-oriented joint that he envisioned.

As one would expect from a project that incubated for almost half a decade, Unregular PIzza emerged fully hatched. Its centerpiece is a Roman style-pizza that aims to offer by-the-slice the high-end pizza experience typically available only at sit-down restaurants. The dough is made from imported flour, fermented for 72 hours, and hydrated at higher than usual levels — all of which, upon reheating, produces a light, spongy and crispy-bottom crust. The varieties consist of twists on familiar topping combinations, fine-tuned on the basis of feedback from bartering customers. Take the pepperoni pizza (aka The Cafonata). It has pepperoni, yes; but it also has a drizzle of spicy hot honey, ‘nduja (a spicy, soft Calabrian sausage) sauce, and a whole burrata in the place of regular mozzarella.

What truly sets Unregular pizza apart, however, is not just the topping combinations, but their quality and preparation. The tomato sauce, which you find in such standouts as the Bufalona, is made from pureed Mutti tomatoes from Parma, and assumes such intensity that you half-expect a tomato to leap out from your slice and slap you in the face.

The Unmushrooms pizza, to give another example, features a mix of shimeji, cremini, and oyster mushrooms, cooked with a bit of thyme and garlic, splashed with parsley pesto, and spiked with a bit of ginger powder.

In addition to the pizza, the restaurant also offers frittatini, a delicious, traditional Neapolitan solution to the problem of left-over pasta: add egg and fry it!

These fried pasta balls have allowed Gabriele to overcome the challenge of serving pasta from a small kitchen with very limited seating. They come in several typical styles, including bolognese and cacio e pepe. Both the frittatini and the pizza, however, also turn up in exciting seasonal varieties. To usher in the fall, for instance, the restaurant is currently offering a Hallowpizza made with grano arso (burned wheat), mozzarella, roasted pumpkin, sweet onions, guanciale, and zucchini cream, as well as a frittatina made with similar ingredients.

Last year, it served a Halloween Burrapumpkin, a burrata with pumpkin cream and guanciale pebbles encased in a pumpkin shaped crust. Who knows? Keep the faith in the Great Pumpkin, and maybe it will come back. 

The restaurant design, the work of Brooklyn-based Italian designer Federica Teso, features a fantastic, retro-style neon sign of Fast Time at Ridgemont High geometries and a Saved by the Bell color scheme, both of which evoke the sort of vision of a cheerful, pandemic-free ‘80s and ‘90s that could only have arisen during a quarantine.

This aesthetic extends to the store’s delivery boxes, which come printed with reheating instructions and additional pointers, and which can double as a bib! 

Last, but not least, the barter program is still in effect, welcoming submissions from folks interested in sharing something of personal interest in exchange for pizza. As Gabriele explains it, it doesn’t matter what it is, provided it reflects your passion.

Recently, a professional football player offered a demonstration of his vertical leap. Gabriele stacked pizza boxes up to the height of a modestly sized human adult, and, in front of a small crowd of spectators, the would-be barterer cleared it and claimed his reward. 

Luckily, you don’t have to leap like a superman to hop on over to Unregular Pizza and sample the fruits of an ongoing, decades-long pursuit of gastronomic novelty and excellence. For marrying clarity of purpose with a steadfast commitment to quality, we are thrilled to name Unregular Pizza our October 2023 Business of the Month.

What special small business would you like to see featured next? Just click here to nominate our next one. Thank you! #shoplocalnyc

Here is a map of all our Businesses of the Month:

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