Dining Design Diary: Una Pizza Napoletana


I was never really into dinner theater. One of my best friends played an Oscar-worthy Maria in Joey and Maria’s Wedding in San Diego, but like many real weddings, the food took a back seat to the cheating cousins, tipsy bridesmaids and mouthy mothers-in-law.

I attended a different type of dinnertime drama this weekend when I went to Una Pizza Napoletana. Accompanied by a friend who could reasonably be called “a connoisseur of dough”—for Christmas he gifted me a sourdough starter lovingly fermented with bacteria from his backyard—he was excited to experience what the NYC pizza legend, Anthony Mangieri, was throwing down in his new SoMa space.

Luckily we’ve mastered the SF pizza-place drill: skip lunch, get there 20 minutes before the doors open, and bring a scarf. We lined up outside the plain white door stenciled with the address, and at 5 p.m. what sounded like an old-school fire bell started to ring. A huge industrial garage door dramatically rolled open to reveal a wall of glass fronting the loft-like space, and in case you were still doubting if you were in the right spot, an iron sign above the door reminiscent of a military crest gave you the only assurance you were in for all evening.

The design was certainly striking: a plain white-walled box with soaring beamed ceilings and a handful of tables shoved off to one side, with an igloo like wood-burning pizza oven, covered in hand-laid turquoise blue tiles at its very center. In front of the oven, which was already crackling with long-simmering logs, was what looked like an antique iron commode hacked into a quaint little prep island for one. Our lone pizza man stood behind it, alternately shoveling sawdust into the mouth of the oven and flouring his work surface. I wish I could say the restaurant’s defining element was that gorgeous oven, its blue tiles repeated once in a barely-there detail against one wall, but instead the trophy went to the iron fence around the stage. Lovely looking custom-welded piece that it was, it might as well have been an 18th-century chancel screen surrounding a Florentine altar, separating the plebeians from the pope. For the next two hours, chilled and disgruntled guests (the service leaves much to be desired, including the fact that they refuse to cut your $20 pizza) stared at the man behind the fence as his made their dinner, one pizza at a time. The setup didn’t encourage lively dinner conversation—we were seated five feet from the cooking corral, so any honest discussions about what we thought of the food were out of the question—and it all made me feel like I was part of some elaborate foodie joke on the level of Banksy’s Mr. Brainwash.

And because this is a design blog, I’m not going to throw myself onto the front lines of the “best pizza in SF” wars, but I will say Una Pizza Napoletana is one of the clearest recent examples of restaurant design expressing the uncommon message: we don’t like to make you comfortable or happy, we don’t like you to stick around too long—heck, we don’t even like you—but what you are seeing and tasting is worthy of your adulation. I can only compare it to the conceits that gave strict modernism a bad name: this chair may not be comfortable, but if you know what’s good for you, you will love it anyway. 


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