There's a saying that the reason both bagels and pizza are so good in New York City is because it's "something in the water.
"Noli's Pizzeria, new to the Blackstone District, takes that idea very seriously. Owner Joel Marsh had a New York friend send him a gallon of the city's tap water. He took that gallon to Futuramic's Clean Water Center in Omaha, where Marsh had it analyzed for things like mineral content and softness.
Then the company came to Noli's and set up a filter that transforms Omaha water into New York water. The result is a restaurant that serves big, foldable slices with a literal New York City-flavor.
Noli's is just the right kind of restaurant for the burgeoning Blackstone area: fast, focused and, for the most part, tasty.
We started our visits with the most expensive and fanciest pie on Noli's menu, the DiManzo, which clocks in at $28 — a lot for a pizza in my book — and is topped with filet mignon, gorgonzola white wine sauce, balsamic glazed caramelized onions, fresh basil and portobello mushrooms.
Address: 4007 Farnam St.
Hours: Monday-Wednesday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Thursday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Prices: A full specialty pie — we tried the DiManzo — runs $28. Other full pizzas run closer to $20. At the lunch hour, diners can get two one-topping slices and a soda or a one-topping slice, a soda and a salad for $6. Additional toppings run extra. Beer is around $4 and wine around $7.
Hits: I liked the acidic tomato sauce, housemade salad dressings and New York-style thin crust with tasty blackened bits.
Misses: Pies loaded with toppings can get soggy, and considering the upcharge for additional toppings, the amount we got on our slices felt scant.
Service: Quick and friendly
Noise level: The restaurant plays mostly classic rock; it's loud but not an impediment to conversation.
Noli's didn't skimp on the quality of the ingredients here, and the beef especially tasted tender and flavorful. I also appreciated the sliced fresh basil thrown on top after the pie came out of the oven, because it retained its freshness and verdant hue.
The pie wasn't perfect, though: The balsamic onions plus a heavy drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette over the top of the pie meant we tasted mostly vinegar. And the heavy load of sauces and ingredients made the thin crust get soggy in the center.
Along the edge, though, that crust became memorable: Thick and bready with a great flavor and burnt bubbles here and there, it's my favorite part of most slices, and it was here, too. The restaurant also offers a gluten-free crust.
Noli's cooks the pizzas in an oven that's powered by both gas and wood, and it reaches around 900 degrees. That crust speckled with burnt spots is what they aim for, and the bottom of the pie, too, has dark, caramelized spots. Maybe it's the water or maybe it's that uber-hot oven, but the crust is, as it should be, a highlight of the experience.
Sauce is also a key component at Noli's, and another day, during lunch, I really liked the red sauce I found on an array of slices. Tangy and bright, it's a raw tomato sauce more acidic than sweet. Marsh, who runs Noli's with his wife, Krystin, said the sauce isn't cooked before it goes onto the pies and into the oven, and he doesn't add any sugar to the mix. He uses only fresh herbs, including basil and oregano.
Nonspecialty full pizzas run about $20. During the day, diners can get either two slices or a slice and a small salad along with a drink for $6.
It's worth noting that those lunch specials are just one-topping slices, and because everyone in our group wanted to try more than just one topping, the additional charge per topping upped the tab significantly. I normally wouldn't gripe about such things, but I felt a bit shortchanged when I paid an additional dollar for three small pieces of spinach and one-fourth of a canned artichoke heart broken into three pieces.
I asked Marsh about that, and he said the restaurant is still working out the kinks on what to offer as part of that special. Most Omaha diners want more than just one topping on their pizza, but Marsh said he thinks the crust tastes best with two or fewer toppings. (I tend to agree with him.) When diners order more than two toppings, the kitchen applies them sparsely so the crust holds up under the weight.
Since I visited, Noli's has changed how it does spinach on the pizza. Krystin Marsh said the kitchen is now chopping the spinach and tossing it in olive oil before putting it on the pizza, which results in "a more satisfying spinach flavor."
The meat toppings at Noli's seem to be where much of the restaurant's focus lies. I liked the fennel-spiked sausage on one slice, and the chicken on another read juicy instead of dry. Big rounds of just-greasy enough, spicy pepperoni topped a third. That slice was especially reminiscent of ones I've had in New York: big, greasy, perfectly foldable, satisfying.
The restaurant has a succinct list of wine and beer, mostly between $4 and $8, and I really liked the Italian sangiovese I had one evening. The beer list is focused on craft selections.
Don't skip the salad. The restaurant makes its dressings in house, and I found Momo's poppy seed, a sweet and tangy affair, especially good. Marsh said it's his grandmother's recipe. My friend also liked the homemade ranch, which he said was lightly spread through the greens, fresh veggies and chunky homemade croutons. The salads come served in cute, white take-away boxes.
Noli's offers a list of standard salad ingredients and a rotating list of seasonal ones. I had the basic mix of greens with carrots and cucumbers and added feta, sweet peppers and almonds from the seasonal list. I liked the salad enough that I got it on both visits.
The one thing I missed on my reviews was the Grandma Pie, which Marsh told me about before the restaurant opened. The restaurant still plans to serve the thin pan pizza that's popular in Long Island and New Jersey, but Marsh said they're still perfecting it. He hopes we'll all be able to try it in the next couple of months.
A by-the-slice joint is a great fit for a neighborhood full of beer, cocktail and wine bars, and the vibe at Noli's perfectly fits this upstart neighborhood. Small quibbles aside, I know I'll be back.