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Restaurant Review: Mels in Chelsea

Mel’s, a pizzeria that opened in Chelsea in March, seems determined to give everyone a good time. Most pizzerias accomplish this with pizza alone, but Mel’s doesn’t stop there.

You step out of the front door into a dark tunnel, as if entering a nightclub. At the end of it, in front of the two or three smiling hosts, is the kitchen, dominated by a domed pizza oven that looks like a disco ball. All night long the restaurant plays hip-hop and club music at volumes you don’t normally hear in restaurants outside of the meatpacking district.

Almost as many people seem to be working in the dreary, shady dining room as eating; every few minutes a different server stops by to check in to ask about cocktails, wine or something else. Near the end of my first dinner at Mel’s, one of them materialized beside me to ask how the meal was going.

Good, I said.

“Let me know if you need anything,” he said. “And I mean anything.”

What did he have in mind – extra pepperoni? Anyway, I never saw him again.

If Mel seems to be pushing too hard on the fun factor, maybe it’s because the place has a monster history. Part of its space, inside 85 10th Avenue, once housed the John Dory, a pop-up seafood spot where Mario Batali and Ken Friedman were among the owners. John Dory’s imprint was subsumed by Del Posto, the much larger and grander restaurant which Mr. Batali also owned. The pair later left the restaurant after being accused of sexual harassment and other misconduct.

Del Posto continued for a few more years, but the fiery and sensitive cooking of its last chef, Melissa Rodriguez, increasingly clashed with a stubborn and anachronistic service ethic. In 2021, with partners including another former employee, Jeffrey Katz, she bought the restaurant, which had been closed for the pandemic. They decided to close Del Posto and build Mel’s in the space along with another restaurant and bar, which are still under construction. One of the first acts of the new owners was to burn a bundle of sage in the dining room.

No wonder eating at Mel’s is a lot like going to a haunted house for a child’s birthday party. A lot of things seem to happen out of fear that just eating and drinking won’t be enough. But they are.

The pizza alone establishes Mel’s as a serious new presence. The pies, scorched by the heat of the wood burning inside the disco ball oven, are unlike anyone else. The tender and light Neapolitan style is a major influence, but the crust is crispier underneath, chewier and more flavorful. At 12 inches in diameter, Mel’s pie is small and airy enough that I could eat one on my own, then continue on to dessert.

Probably the closest thing to Mel’s crust in the New York area is Dan Richer’s neapolitan crust at Razza in Jersey City, NJ It’s great company for a new pizzeria, even though Mel’s isn’t not yet close to achieving Razza’s masterful application of tomatoes, cheese and other toppings.

The Margherita pizza is as per the book and very good. Beyond that, Ms. Rodriguez indulges in tradition. Mushroom pie gains depth with smoked mozzarella, sweet shallots and aged balsamic vinegar. Frutti di mare pizza uses a spicy tomato sauce as a backdrop for tender octopus, calamari and prawns. The combination of ricotta and gremolata with finely shaved asparagus is quirky and clever, suggesting pies made with market produce are worth seeking out as warmer weather sets in.

Vegetables are the subject of most starters, from the excellent salad of Bibb lettuce drizzled with toasted breadcrumbs and pistachios to grilled Little Gem lettuce in vinaigrette and fresh mint with a drizzle of almost runny burrata.

Char-roasted parsnips look promising, but they haven’t been cooked long enough to bring out their sweetness. (Something similar happens with the whole roasted cauliflower offered as a main dish; like the parsnips, it might as well have been steamed.)

The best appetizer, and in some ways the restaurant’s biggest achievement, is something called a giant clam. Rhode Islanders will tell you it’s a “stuffie” – a baked shell filled with chopped clams and seasoned breadcrumbs. What they might not tell you is that most stuffed animals are awful – dense, soggy and heavy enough to anchor a small boat. A Mel stuffing, on the other hand, is loosely packed with fresh breadcrumbs mixed with not only clams but also chopped shrimp. It’s heretical, but the effect is exceptional.

Do you imagine that you can eat perfectly well at Mel’s and still give the pizza a supporting role, if any? I could imagine slipping into an empty seat at the bar, if there was one, and ordering only the Bibb Salad and New York Grilled Striploin, an intensely marbled cut of meat that many steakhouses can’t match. . Here’s your chance to take advantage of the wine list, full of ripe southern Italian reds. What passes for the low end of many lists now starts around $70, so just seeing how many bottles Mel’s has priced at $50 or less has always lifted my spirits, even before the premiere drop is shed.

A good birthday party, even in a haunted house, needs ice cream. All of Mel’s desserts are frozen ice cream, and each one is thought out entirely, a unified whole. The prettiest is the stracciatella sitting on a hot fudge base with Neapolitan rainbow cookie shavings on top, but I also love the subtle pairing of gelato fior di latte with salted caramel ribbons and pizzelle whole housed in ice.

The desserts are the work of Georgia Wodder, who was Del Posto’s pastry chef in her later years. Pizza dough is also her recipe, which qualifies her for the Most Valuable Player award.

Have the ghosts of 85 10th Avenue been buried? Diners with long memories might point out that the vegetable antipasti, pizza, and ice cream was the model for another Mario Batali restaurant, Otto, which closed in 2020. But if honest, those diners would have to admit that the pizza is better than Mel’s.

What do the stars mean Due to the pandemic, restaurants are not star rated.


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