Mario LaPosta, 38, grew up in an Italian family in central Connecticut. As a child, he dreamed of eating pizza every day. Now his dream is reality with the new da LaPosta in the old Cook space in Newtonville, specializing in Neapolitan-style pies (there are pastas and larger plates, too).
LaPosta apprenticed in Italy and later cooked at Babbo in the Seaport, which closed in 2019 amid owner Mario Batali’s legal battles related to sexual assault. LaPosta was originally going to open his restaurant in the Seaport, too, but found that settling into a turnkey property in the suburbs was much simpler.
Tell me about the restaurant.
I’ve been working on it for the last 3½ or 4 years. The goal was to deliver a pizzeria and restaurant of my dreams, in the sense that I’m a big foodie myself. I love traveling. I love eating. So every restaurant I go into, whether in Italy or here in the States, I’m always picking things up, whether it’s food or design or just the concept — trying to create in my mind this great restaurant. What would a great pizzeria look like?
The goal of the restaurant is to showcase our pizza and authentic Italian food — and also doing it in New England, using local vendors and local farmers. We’re working with a farm called Chickering Chicks in New Hampshire, and we get all their beef, and it’s just amazing. We work with a company out of Utah called Central Milling. They make all of our proprietary pizza flour for us. We get fermented cheese curd from Pennsylvania from a company called Caputo Brothers Creamery. According to them, they’re the only dairy farm in the United States with actually fermented cheese curds.
I think that’s important to what we’re doing because, you know, especially with a Neapolitan-style, artisanal-style, wood-fired pizzeria, you see a lot of stuff imported from Italy. We’re certainly bringing in products from Italy; there’s no question about that. But our flour and our mozzarella and all that, and even our tomatoes, we’re sourcing that here. We’re doing our best to source as close to home as possible. That was really the goal of the restaurant: to be local, to be sustainable, and to be a part of the community.
I originally had a location in the Seaport, in Fort Point, but the pandemic put that on hold, and it just wasn’t something we were able to revive. We started looking in Metrowest. You know, we really just wanted to get the concept open and start showcasing what we can do. A potential turnkey space in the ‘burbs was the best way to do that. … We found the old Cook space. The bones are great. It needed a little bit of love, and the best thing about the location is you’re 10 or 15 minutes from everywhere. … And they already had a wood-fired pizza oven there. That was the centerpiece of their dining room. So we put our pizza oven in there and rebuilt this beautiful bar around it.
Bostonians have very specific tastes in terms of pizza. How would you describe your style, the taste and the texture?
It’s most related to Neapolitan-style pizza. I really learned to make pizza in Italy, in Rome. I was working for a Neapolitan-style pizzeria, and then closer to Naples.
But, with that said, I feel like Neapolitan-style pizza is really difficult to replicate. When you’re in Italy, which is like the culinary capital of the world, the ingredients are just incredible. So to get them as fresh as they are is very difficult. That’s why I talk about sourcing as close to home as possible. When I say Neapolitan-style pizza, we cook at 900 to 1,000 degrees in 60 to 90 seconds. But what’s different about our pizza? I’m trying to get a little bit of a crispier pizza but with the soft texture that I love about Neapolitan-style pizza, with the crispy exterior. It’s really light and digestible. That’s super important.
Our pizzas are all naturally leavened. My starter is four years old. I made it by fermenting local Concord grapes in my pizza flour, and then I made a sourdough from there. That’s the base of all of our pizza; our pizza has no yeast in it, other than the natural yeast of sourdough. So technically, this wouldn’t be considered Neapolitan pizza, because I’m not using double-zero flour from Italy and peeled Italian tomatoes. … I say ‘Neapolitan-inspired, artisanal pizza.’
Did you always want to be a chef?
I come from an Italian family. My dad was born just outside Naples. My mom’s family was from Italy. So everything we did as a family was built around these big dinners every night of the week. My mom was always an amazing cook growing up; she always made amazing pizza and amazing meatballs.
Honestly, since I was young, I’ve always been pizza-obsessed. It’s not a cliché or some story I’m telling. If I could eat pizza every day of the week, I’d be good with that. … I was inspired by my mom’s cooking and visiting my dad’s family in Italy. That was where the love affair with food and pizza and hospitality started. And then, from there, I worked in some local pizzerias growing up in Berlin, Connecticut, and whatnot in college.
In college, I was pursuing a degree in hospitality. My brother-in-law hooked me up with a job as a cook at his restaurant, Bricco, in West Hartford, Connecticut — not affiliated with the one in Boston. And, a few weeks in, I said to him, “Hey, I’m having nightmares about the ticket machine and the pizza oven.” And he’s like: “You got the bug, kid; you’re hooked.”
He was right. I was hooked into the industry and loved every aspect of it. From then on, I was probably 22 at the time, I immersed myself in restaurants and decided to save up money to go to Italy as soon as I graduated college to apprentice. I got a job in Rome. I was working about 50 hours a week making just over three bucks an hour. I moved there to really immerse myself in the food there and learn as much as I possibly could.
What happened to Babbo? Were you caught in the crosshairs of what happened with Mario Batali’s empire? What was its ultimate downfall? Him? Something else?
Number one, I think we really did have a great restaurant. I thought Babbo was an exceptional restaurant. ... Our pizza was phenomenal; we had an incredible gelato program that never seemed to catch any wind.
I think the company in general made some mistakes going into the space. In my opinion, we didn’t do any research on the market. We didn’t get to know the Boston community. And you know, we came in and just said, “We’re going to open here.” Mario had some rules as far as how he felt diners should dine. The reality is, people like to go to great restaurants where they can kind of be led in a certain direction as far as eating maybe unique dishes or drinking this great wine. But, at the end of the day, especially in a casual pizzeria atmosphere, people want to eat what they want to eat. We were just not flexible in the beginning.
I’d call him and say, “Mario, people are walking out because we won’t give them butter.” And he’d be like, “Alright, give them butter, but no marinara.” Then a month later, I’m calling Mario and being like, “Mario, we have to give people marinara. We’re pissing people off.” And he’d be like, “Alright, fine, give them marinara, but that’s it.”
We were a new restaurant; we were a big restaurant. So it took awhile to get to a place of consistency. And then, really the last couple years, once the Mario stuff happened, sales dropped immediately after the Mario allegations came out. From there, it was just an uphill battle. In my personal opinion, the last 12 months at that restaurant, the company was fighting a legal battle with Mario, and they just were not interested in making the concept work. They were not interested in investing any more time, effort, or money into the location, which is really unfortunate, because there were a lot of amazing, talented people who worked there.
I never experienced any of the stuff that allegedly or actually happened with Mario. I didn’t work too directly with Mario and [partner] Joe [Bastianich]; I worked directly with one of their partners, Andy Nusser, who’s an amazing person and one of my mentors. I think Babbo’s biggest downfall was it kind of took us a little while to get to where we needed to be as far as consistency and learning the Boston market. Throw in all the Mario stuff, which helped decline sales, and then you throw in 10,000 square feet and waterfront, and yeah, that’s not good.
What’s your favorite restaurant to visit when you’re not working?
I would honestly say one of my favorite places in Boston is Shenannigans on West Broadway in Southie. It’s a local Irish pub, and the food’s delicious. … It’s just a great little neighborhood place. I just love it.
I also love Loco as well in Southie. Their food’s really delicious, and they do a great job with the atmosphere.
I’ll go with Parmesan cheese on whole wheat crackers.
Any pizza pet peeves? Any toppings that absolutely do not belong on a pizza?
Pizza is one of those things where people can do whatever they want and paint their own picture. I don’t want to be one of those guys who says “no pineapple!” I would say one of my pet peeves is pasta or fried calamari on pizza. Not a fan of that.
White or red pizza?
I gotta be honest; I love no sauce on pizza. My favorite pizza is a quattro formaggi — four cheese, and it doesn’t have sauce on it.
Interview was edited and condensed.
Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.