Restaurant Review: Mels in Chelsea

Mel’s, a pizza place that opened in Chelsea in March, seems determined to show everybody a good time. Most pizza places accomplish this with pizza alone, but Mel’s doesn’t stop there.

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

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

Fine, I said.

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

What did he have in mind — extra pepperoni? In any case, I never saw him again.

If Mel’s seems to push too hard on the fun factor, it may be because the place has a monster of a back story. Part of its space, inside 85 10th Avenue, was once home to the John Dory, a short-lived seafood spot where Mario Batali and Ken Friedman were among the owners. The John Dory’s footprint was subsumed by Del Posto, the much larger and grander restaurant where Mr. Batali was also an owner. Both men later left the restaurant business after being accused of sexual harassment and other misconduct.

Del Posto kept going for a few more years, but the spirited, sensitive cooking of its last chef, Melissa Rodriguez, was increasingly at odds with an affected, anachronistic service ethos. In 2021, together with partners who included 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 a bar, which are still in the works. One of the new owners’ first acts was to burn a bundle of sage in the dining room.

It’s no wonder that eating at Mel’s can be a bit like going to a child’s birthday party in a haunted house. A lot seems to be happening out of some fear that mere 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 burning hardwood inside the disco-ball oven, are not quite like anybody else’s. The tender, light Neapolitan style is a major influence, but the crust is crisper underneath, chewier and more flavorful. At 12 inches across, Mel’s pie is small and airy enough that I could eat one by myself and then plow onward to dessert.

The nearest thing to Mel’s crust in the New York area is probably Dan Richer’s neo-Neapolitan crust at Razza in Jersey City, NJ This is excellent company for a new pizzeria, even if Mel’s doesn’t yet come close to achieving Razza’s masterly application of tomatoes, cheese and other toppings.

The pizza Margherita is by the book and very good. Beyond that, Ms. Rodriguez lets herself wander from tradition. The mushroom pie gains depth from smoked mozzarella, soft shallots and aged Balsamic vinegar. The frutti di mare pizza uses spicy tomato sauce as a backdrop for tender octopus, squid and shrimp. The combination of ricotta and gremolata with thinly shaved dimes of asparagus is original and smart, suggesting that pies made with market produce will be worth looking for as warmer weather settles in.

Vegetables are the subject of most of the appetizers, from the excellent Bibb lettuce salad showered with toasted bread crumbs and pistachios to the grilled Little Gem lettuce in vinaigrette and fresh mint with a near-liquid blob of burrata.

Parsnips roasted in embers sound promising, but they haven’t been cooked long enough to coax out their sweetness. (Something similar happens with the whole roasted cauliflower offered as a main course; like the parsnips, it might as well have been steamed.)

The best appetizer, and in some ways the restaurant’s greatest achievement, is something called a giant clam. Rhode Islanders will tell you that this is a “stuffie” — a baked clamshell filled with chopped clams and seasoned bread crumbs. What they may not tell you is that most stuffies are awful — dense, soggy and heavy enough to serve as an anchor for a small boat. Mel’s stuffie, on the other hand, is loosely packed with fresh bread crumbs mixed not just with clams but also chopped shrimp. This is heretical, but the effect is outstanding.

Are you getting the idea that you can eat perfectly well at Mel’s while assigning pizza a supporting role, or none at all? I could imagine slipping into an empty seat at the bar, if there was one, and ordering nothing but the Bibb salad and the grilled New York strip, an intensely marbled piece of meat that many steakhouses can’t equal. Here is an opportunity to make hay of the wine list, full of ripe reds from the south of Italy. What passes for the low end of many lists now starts around $70, just merely seeing the number of bottles that Mel’s has priced at $50 or less always cheered me up, even before the first drop was poured.

A good birthday party, even one in a haunted house, needs ice cream. All the desserts at Mel’s are gelato sundaes, and each one is fully thought through, a unified whole. The prettiest is the stracciatella resting on a foundation of hot fudge with shaved Neapolitan rainbow cookies on top, but I also love the subtle pairing of fior di latte gelato with ribbons of salted caramel and a whole pizzelle lodged in the ice cream.

The desserts are the work of Georgia Wodder, who was Del Posto’s pastry chef in its last years. The pizza dough is her recipe as well, which qualifies her for a most-valuable-player award.

Have the ghosts of 85 10th Avenue been laid to rest? Diners with long memories might point out that vegetable antipasti, pizza and gelato were the template of a different Mario Batali restaurant, Otto, which closed in 2020. But if they are being honest, those diners would have to admit that the pizza is better at Honey’s

What the Stars Mean Because of the pandemic, restaurants are not being given star ratings.

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