Friday, October 22, 2010


The Verdura at Antico

When I first moved to Atlanta a few years ago, the pizza scene was already formidable, with several Italian chefs opening semi-fancy establishments focusing on serious, thoughtful pizza. But in the last few years, pizza flipping in Atlanta has gotten competitive, with one owner insulting another and a new pizzeria of note to check out every few months. Now, I'd say unequivocally Atlanta has the most scrumptious and nuanced pizza I have ever eaten, better than the pizza I've encountered in Italy or anywhere else.

Before venturing into my description of each place, I will let you know my credentials and taste. I have eaten more than my fair share of pizza, at least several hundred times in Italy in most regions of the country. Contrary to the general consensus among pizzaphiles, some of the least convincing pizza I've ever had was in Naples or in Neapolitan-owned pizzerias in Italy. That signature overly chewy crust with small dollops of mozzarella doesn't do it for me. More often, pizza in Northern and Central Italy has an excessively thin crust and in my opinion, not much flavor. In Italy, I usually prefer Pizza al taglio (pizza to go by the slice), which is usually square shaped with a thicker crust and is sometimes more inspired, for whatever reason, than the pizza you'll find in a pizzeria.

My taste generally hones closer to an American concept of pizza, where the cheese, sauce and toppings are as important as the crust. Pizza should be cheesy. Los Angeles possesses one of the greatest pizzerias in Casa Bianca Pizza Pie in Eagle Rock, a checkered table cloth, old school Italian-American, family-style pizzeria, where you can wait an hour or more to land a table. Their pizza is perhaps my favorite with its oddly-cut slices, charred crust and tomato sauce intensive flavor. They do an excellent whole wheat crust. I also love Zelo, which serves a very unique, deep dish pizza made with a corn crust, in the far out L.A. suburb of Arcadia. The New York style chain Lamonica's serves fine, slightly greasy pizza that I have been eating since I was a pimpled teenager in L.A. On the one occasion that I went to Pizzeria Mozza, a fairly new, well-hyped Los Angeles restaurant serving kind of original, but not very satisfying pizza to an industry crowd, I thought their wild mushroom pizza relied almost entirely on its heavy mushroom flavor and was really a mess. I think most would agree that L.A. is not one of the most stellar cities for pizza. There are quite a few very good New York style spots in L.A., but just a handful of pizzerias that make one want to tap dance. I am not a connoisseur of New York, Chicago or New Haven pizza, thought that is something I hope to be someday. I should also mention I am a vegetarian, so pepperoni, prosciutto and Canadian bacon do not figure into my resume.

The grooviest pizza in Atlanta is no secret. Antico Pizza Napoletana (1093 Hemphill Ave. Atlanta 30318) has been written about in high-falutin publications. It is a fairly small space and on each of the three evenings I've been there it was uncomfortably crammed with people. The set up is you order first at the counter and then if you are eating there, you may receive your pizza in the large kitchen, where most of the tables are located. The pizzaioli there like to blast loud Euro dance music, opera or corny Italian-American standards. A few of the tables are actually tall cooking tables, which they seem to slowly be in the process of replacing. You sit on stools and all the tables are communal. Napkins are rolls of coarse brown paper that you might find in a high school bathroom and the pizza is messy. You will go through that coarse roll. It is one of the most uncomfortable places I have ever eaten in, but well worth it. At Antico, the crust really is something special, a delicious chewy thing, charred black in parts, much like a real Neapolitan pizza, but better than any I have ever had. Twice we have had the Pomodorini pizza, which comes with cherry Vesuvian tomatoes (the best cherry tomatoes I've ever eaten), plentiful garlic, bufala mozzarella and basil. The toppings are somewhat drippy, but everything coalesces perfectly. Three pieces in the first time and I was ready to declare it one of the best pizzas I've ever had. We've also ordered the Verdura, which comes with broccoli rabe, mushrooms, pomodorini and garlic. The broccoli rabe is a perfect topping, which I have never had on a pizza before, and the Verdura pizza is as good if not better than the Pomodorini. It has generally been recommended to eat the Antico's pizza on the spot or soon after leaving, as it apparently doesn't travel well. But despite its success, Antico seems like a place that will never be comfortable to eat in. If they haven't replaced the napkins yet, are they ever going to? I've heard it's more relaxed at times during the day.

Before Antico came along, Fritti (N. Highland Ave. NE Atlanta 30307) ruled the Atlanta pizza scene. It's a restaurant that is really the opposite of Antico. Fritti is an expensive, white tablecloth, somewhat frou-frou restaurant with a nifty wine list and attentive waiters. The menu includes several excellent salads and fried, fairly authentic Italian appetizers (from which the name of the restaurant, Fritti, is derived). The pizza menu is lengthy and experimental. My favorite is the Pizza Robiola e Pesto, a sauce-less white pizza with sweet Robiola goat cheese (normally never used but perfect for pizza), glops of arugula pesto and sundried tomatoes. This is not a pizza you would ever find in Italy, though the chef/owner, Riccardo Ullio, is an authentic Italian. I'm also crazy about the Pizza Funghi di Bosco, which comes with a generous amount of Crimini and Portobello mushrooms and a dash of truffle oil.

Robiola e Pesto at Fritti

The Sorrentina at Fritti

The owner of Varsano's (2171 Peachtree Rd. NE Atlanta 30309), Jeffrey Varsano, opened his restaurant in Buckhead after slamming Fritti on his Web site, calling their pizza "pathetic tasteless cardboard." Varsano's is clearly not on the level of Fritti and not in the same universe as Antico, but it is another excellent, serious pizzeria. The knockout for me at Varsano's is the Carmelized Onion Pizza, which comes with sweet onions and sharp Emmenthaler cheese, a white pizza with a strong sweet flavor that is entirely original. We also ordered Nana's House Special, mozzarella with tomato sauce and a secret blend of herbs, which was very good, though straightforward. However, the restaurant lacks any ambiance and the typical Italian-American mix of music (Sinatra, "Volare," "That's Amore") was grating on the ears.

For a while, Baraonda Caffè Italiano (710 Peachtree St. NE Atlanta 30308) was my second or third favorite pizzeria in Atlanta. It has a great location down the street from the Fox Theatre. It's loud and a bit clubby with an extensive Italian menu (unlike Antico, Fritti and Varsano's, Baraonda serves pasta), as well as a cocktail menu. But after eating at all the other places I've mentioned, Baraonda dropped several notches on my list. They serve genuine, Italian thin crust pizza, but the last time we were there I thought they overdid it with the olive oil, kind of an obvious no-no. Antico has really turned the whole idea of pizza on its head. Everything else tastes slightly less good now.

To me, pizza shouldn't necessarily come with silverware or wine. Atlanta is home to some truly incredible grubby pizza places too. The best of them is Rosa's Pizza (62 Broad St. NW Atlanta 30303) downtown, which serves up the best New York style slices I've ever had. Mind you that I haven't really explored New York style pizza in New York, though like many Americans I've had hundreds of New York style slices everywhere and Rosa's blows them all away. If you arrive around lunchtime (they are open until 6 pm), don't be intimidated by the long line in a tiny confined, hallway-like space. That line moves rapidly as you yell your order to the guy who puts on the toppings. One of those guys is a somewhat charismatic fellow who replied "yeccch" one time when I ordered feta cheese as a topping. He was right. It didn't melt properly and really has no place on a New York style slice. The special is two slices with a topping and a drink for $6. Not bad. The pizza doesn't look like much before it goes in the oven, but it comes out seared and delicious. My garlic pizza was really heavy on the garlic. On one occasion, it looked like eight cloves had been heaped onto my two slices and the garlic was so overwhelmingly strong that I don't think most people would have been able to eat it. Still, it was good. Rosa's doesn't use much cheese or grease. It's just delicious, flavorful, crunchy perfection.

Rosa's on Broad St.

Another lauded New York style place is Pizza Fortunato (5350 United Dr SE Smyrna, 30082), which is in a minimall in an out-of-the-way corner of the not very convenient suburb of Smyrna. We went there because the local weekly, Creative Loafing, declared it the best pizza of 2009. The slices are huge and inundated with a very yummy red sauce. I was really impressed the first time we went there, but less so on our second trip. The dollops of bufala mozzarella were definitely not generous. However, the caprese and fried ravioli appetizer were excellent. If you unfortunately live in Smyrna (or Smyrna Queerna as I immaturely call it), this would be the place to go.

Pizza Fortunato (Oops. Ate two slices before taking the photo)

You can find very similar pizza intown at Pizzeria Vesuvius (327 Edgewood Ave. Atlanta 30312). This place is not far from my house, but I would pass on going there again as the wait for the food to arrive the night we went there was never-ending. There were maybe 12 other people, most of them at the bar. Yet, it took a half hour for our bread sticks to arrive and an hour for the pizza. I can't imagine how they would handle a crowd. This was still above average tasty pizza, though with maybe too much crust. I would consider a delivery if I wasn't in a hurry.

Camelli’s Gourmet Pizza Joint (699 Ponce de Leon Atlanta 30308) won't deliver to my house, even though I'm about 20 minutes away, because I'm just off their delivery map. Their loss and mine because it's again above average pizza and ridiculously dirt cheap. Two small, but good-sized pizzas with multiple toppings are $15.

I guess I should mention at least one crappy place too, though in my research they were few and far between. Savage Pizza (superhero themed) in Little Five Points is pretty disgusting, overly greasy and left me feeling awful afterward.

Nancy's Chicago Deep Dish Pizza

Of all the varied pizza choices in Atlanta, the pizza that I've most often eaten here is from the Chicago chain, Nancy's Pizza, which has a small eat-in spot in Buckhead (3167 Peachtree Rd. Atlanta) and delivers to my house from Midtown, (265 Ponce de Leon Atlanta). Nancy's makes Chicago-style stuffed pizza with layers of thick cheese and tomato sauce. The crust is subtle with a little crunch, just perfect. We always order it without toppings as it doesn't need anything extra. Nancy’s thin crust pizza, which is like kiddie pizza, is also exceptional. Both pizzas go particularly well with Nancy's yummy sweet tea, which you can buy by the liter for $3.

Atlanta's pizza renaissance is something to experience, making the city a worthy destination for pizza alone.

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