Twice, it was my fault. I should have checked to make sure the Neapolitan pizzeria in Ridgewood was still open on Sundays (not since summer) and holidays (not since ever).
But the last time, it was because the pizza was different.
How different? The point where the young pizzaiolo -- or pizza-maker -- took it upon himself to ask if anything was wrong when we didn't ask to have the leftovers wrapped.
"It's just not how it was last time," I told him.
"Ohhh," he said, knowingly. "Yeah, it's changed."
We talked for 10 minutes that day, and another 20 today. Indeed, A Mano has changed. For the better, the pizzaiolas insist. But those craving the truly authentic Neapolitan pizza it was known for may have to settle for more Neapolitan-style, because that's what A Mano seems to be serving today.
Sure, the dough is still made with imported Caputo flour, although it's mixed differently now, the pizza-makers say. The olive oil is still from Italy, but it's now a blend, designed to evaporate faster. The mozzarella is still made fresh each day, although it's now sprinkled over the whole pie, not sliced into strategically placed circles.
And most notably, the brick oven still burns wood, but now it's the same 600-degree heat you'll find at the neighborhood pizza joint, not the 1,000-degree inferno that was cooking pizzas in one minuted flat when the restaurant opened a year ago. [UPDATE ON JAN. 28: A Mano co-owner Fred Mortati said the information about the oven temperature, provided by A Mano employees, was not accuate; the temperature is unchanged.]
Why? "So customers will like it here," said pizzaiolo Gaetano Castaldo, who has trained and taught pizza-making all over the world and now seems to be in charge of Americanizing A Mano.
The Americanized A Mano pizza is thinner and dryer -- less like Naples and more like Ohio -- with a crust that more cracker-like than breadlike. My colleague, Rob Bieselin, said it best: It used to be like eating garlic bread. Now, it's like eating a tortilla. Eating a Mast' Nicola, an insanely simple pizza topped only with olive oil, grated Pecorino Romano cheese and a few sprigs of basil, seemed like crunching through a cheese crisp atop a Saltine.
It's a stretch to say that North Jersey didn't like A Mano, but restaurant employees say they heard too many complaints about soft crusts. The drier, crisper pizza should change that, Castaldo said. "People enjoy this more now -- it's more light, more crisp -- than they liked it before," he said in Italian, translated by fellow pizzaiolo Fedrico Fridman. The bottom line has improved in the weeks since the change, he said.
It's important to note that the assembly technique has not changed. The dough is still stretched by hand by pizza-makers who train for weeks. Fridman said it was a month and a half before he ever made a pizza for a customer. He spent his first week just flipping a dish towel over his hands, simulating dough. "No kidding," he said, demonstrating a dish towel pie.
And the pizza-makers are eager to authenticate the experience best they can. If you prefer something a little more Napleslike, just ask, they say, and they'll do what they can. "Our job is to make the customer happy," said Gennaro Romeo, the chef who handles behind-the-scenes work at A Mano and the adjacent Jerry's Gourmet & More next door.
Roberto Caporuscio, the chef-partner who was the face of the restaurant when it opened, is in the middle of a two-month vacation to Italy, his employees said. Jerry's Gourmet owner Jerry Turci, one of A Mano's owners, was not at his Englewood store today and phone and e-mail messages left this morning at his home weren't immediately returned.