Pizza in Atlanta

I just got back from a 10 day pizzacation in the good old American south. Here’s a round of images from Atlanta, GA.

These are two of the four pies we had at Antico, one of Atlanta’s new hotshot pizzerias. The place is loud a bustling — more an open garage than a restaurant — and everyone seemed to be having a blast. I loved the place. It felt great. You stand in line, order your pizzas and the server hunts you down by calling out your receipt number about five minutes later. Seating is open and communal, so you have to scout your spot once your order is in. It’s pretty intense.

The photo above shows the San Gennaro (sausage, red peppers and onions) and the Bianca (mozzarella, ricotta, pecorino, basil). The place bills itself as “authentic Neapolitan STG” but that’s far from true. Their pizza is more Americanized in that it’s larger and stretched with more aggression. Don’t get me wrong, I actually really dig what they’re doing but it doesn’t conform to STG standards as it so claims. Solid pizza and a really fun experience, just don’t expect a quiet evening of gentle conversation.

Next stop was Mellow Mushroom. I’ve had so many people mention this place to me I just had to check it out. There are a bunch of them scattered around the USA but most are concentrated in the southeast. It’s a real family joint — there was even a family celebrating a kid’s 3rd birthday while we were there!

The pizza was fine but nothing Earth-shattering. The crust is sweet and ripe for ample toppings. We had one that was half Maui Wowie (pesto, pineapple, ham, jerk chicken, banana peppers, Applewood smoked bacon, mozzarella) and half Magical Mystery Tour (pesto, button and Portobello mushrooms, feta and mozzarella cheeses, spinach and jalapeños). It’s kind of a mess but absolutely fine for what it was. 

The two folks in the photo are Jeff and Kirstin. I met Jeff a few years ago as he was getting ready to open his own pizzeria. If you’re into pizza making, Jeff’s website is the Rosetta Stone.

The big event in Atlanta during my brief visit was finally checking out Jeff’s place - Varasano’s. I would normally go more covert when making a visit like this to get a more honest experience, but Jeff’s a friend and I had no choice but to GO BIG! I invited all Atlanta-based pizza tour alumni and about 15 came out for a tasting with Jeff. He had the kitchen make 14 different pizzas plus three desserts and everything was delicious. I wish I had better pizza photos but the lighting was low and slices were cut small so I’m not going to bother.

This photo shows Jeff presenting the final pizza of the night — a super herby Sicilian — to the crew of ready-to-explode pizza eaters. Varasano’s is located in the ground floor of a fancy apartment building. There’s even valet parking, which creeps me out at a pizzeria. The vibe is totally different from Antico and Mellow Mushroom but I enjoyed the pizza more. Jeff’s crust is just killer. He got his start by experimenting at home with dozens of flours, tomatoes, cheeses and methods. He even went so far as to clip the lock in his electric oven so he could bake pizzas in the high heat of the self-clean cycle. Please don’t try that at home.

One more thing you need to know about Jeff Varasano: he wrote a book about solving the Rubik’s Cube when he was 14 years old. You’re welcome.

Flying Pizza Oven at Sottocasa

New pizzerias are always exciting, but this one has a fun story that goes beyond the crust. Sottocasa opened just a couple weeks ago with pizzaiolo Luca Arrigoni at the helm. He obviously picked up some major skills from Keste on Bleecker Street, which is where he worked before splitting off to open his own spot.

Some friends and I tried a few pizzas and all were delightful. I especially liked the Reginella, with bright cherry tomatoes and creamy mozzarella di bufala. He also makes an excellent dessert pizza that builds on the popular Nutella filling with some marscapone and toasted almonds. The space is also quite lovely, with a real DIY vibe flowing from the decor. Apparently Luca & Co handled all of the handiwork themselves and it forges a real connection between the staff, food and space.

But I was most intrigued by Luca’s oven. It’s your usual story about thick brick wood-burning heat chamber imported directly from Italy, but the oven’s journey has a very unusual twist. Sottocasa is located in the ground floor of a brownstone near the corner of Atlantic Ave and Smith Street. The restaurant is recessed a few steps below street level but there are no visible obstructions that would prevent the oven from moving to its position near the back of the space. Yet the folks at Sottocasa couldn’t just roll the oven effortlessly across the floor and it’s the fault of the oven itself.

Sottocasa’s oven is a pre-built Acunto and it weighs just over two tons. That’s a bit much for old floors to handle, so Luca had to find another way to get the oven in place. Contrary to what anybody thought physically possible, the best course of action turned out to be lifting the oven over the three story building with a giant crane. That’s right - they lifted it off a flatbed, over the building, and lowered it into place in the back yard. Insane!

Check out this cool video Luca took of his oven being lifted into the clouds.

Remember that the oven is still too heavy to sit on the floor of the restaurant, so it’s actually living on a piece of the backyard. They had to build a special chamber around the oven to make it cohesive with the actual building space. This is exactly why so many old coal-fired ovens in NYC were built beyond the building lines of their respective properties. It’s so neat! Here were some photos to better illustrate what’s going on.

Sottocasa’s backyard with the oven-in-a-box visible through the glass.

Luca tending the oven.

Side view of the oven chamber.

Totally awesome! So not only is Sottocasa a worthy visit because of the pizza, but it also has a great oven story to accompany your meal. Check it out…

298 Atlantic Ave (between Smith St & Hoyt St)
Brooklyn, NY 11201
(718) 852-8758

Italy Trip Part V: Naples

I am privileged to have been raised in the Land of Great Pizza. My home state of New Jersey lies right in the middle of a constellation of industrial cities that dot the northeastern USA, which attracted so many Italian immigrants in the early 20th century. Those immigrant communities provided our nation’s earliest pizzerias, many of which are still in business today. But these immigrants did not simply come from Italy, they came from Southern Italy. Vastly different from the Northern region of the country, Southern Italy holds within its boundaries the roots of our beloved pizza.

When attempting a pilgrimage to Italy’s sacred pizza hotspots, all roads lead to Naples. The bulk of my trip was spent observing and absorbing the culinary traditions of various Neapolitan pizzerias, all of which boasted nearly identical wood burning ovens and ingredients (Caputo “00” flour, salt, water, yeast, mozzarella di bufala, San Marzano tomatoes, fresh basil and extra virgin olive oil) that caused their pizza to remain pretty similar. When in Naples, don’t expect a New York slice with its crispy exterior and foldable crust. The Neapolitan pies are served whole and unsliced. While people used to enjoy an entire pie by picking it up and folding it into a tight cone-shaped street food, the current accepted method is to attack the 33 cm pie with fork and knife. Attempting to pick up a slice often leads to a sauce-cheese avalanche.

The crust (corniccione) of a Neapolitan pizza is a tender and puffy lip, filled with air and soft as a pillow at the end of a bed. It gives way to a pool of crushed tomato and moist mozzarella di bufala. The image is stunning.

Since these pizzas are baked on 800 degree bricks just inches away from a well-tended wood fire, they char around the circumference as well as underneath. These spots indicate the intense heat of the oven.

It being my first trip to Naples, I had done plenty of research and selected my pizza stops from among those listed in selections from every pizza enthusiast’s library (Peter Reinhart’s American Pie, Ed Levine’s Pizza: A Slice of Heaven, Pamela Sheldon Jones’s Pizza Napoletana!, etc). The pizza at every stop was exceptional, and since the trip was back in January I managed to miss the lines of tourists looking for the best pizza in town. These are, in chronological order, the stops I made throughout the three days I spent in Naples:

1. Solopizza – Immediately upon reaching Naples, I ate at the first pizzeria I could find. This is part of a small chain of Neapolitan pizzerias. It was nothing special.

2. Fratelli la Bufala – This place is located across the street from Solopizza. It was my first night in Naples and I wanted to get it started with a bang. The pizza looked like the pictures of Neapolitan pizza I studied while on the train, but the taste wasn’t transcendent.

3. Pizzeria Brandi – The famous pizzeria of Raphaelle Esposito, who famously crafted pizza for Queen Margherita in 1889. These are the best dressed waiters I have ever seen in a pizzeria. The only thing that puzzled me was the use of canned mushrooms. The pizza margherita is divine with a smokey crust and rich mozzarella di bufala.

4. Antica Pizzeria Port Alba – Allegedly the first pizzeria, opened in 1730. Very similar to Brandi with an even smokier crust. The place was completely empty at 7 PM but that changed by 8:30. Definitely a must visit for every pizza geek.

5. Pizzeria Di Matteo – This is the same puffy crust I encountered all over Naples topped with a more acidic tomato. Absolutely phenomenal. Very popular with the locals. I also tasted the pizza fritta, a deep fried calzone filled with broccoli rabe and sausage.

6. Pizzeria Da Michele – In its current location since 1912, this pizzeria originally opened in 1870. They serve a pizza margherita and a pizza marinara, each of which is available in three sizes. Beverages are each 1 euro. The pizza marinara may be the tastiest pizza I have ever eaten. The margherita was delicious even though it was the least cheesy of the trip. Don’t forget to take a number before waiting in line.

7. L’ Europeo di Mattozzi – This was the most unique pizza margherita of the whole batch. It included diced cherry tomatoes and the crust was slightly crispy. Definitely a standout pizza in a city of pizzerias.

8. Pizzeria La Notizia – The pizzeria owned by my only Neapolitan contact Enzo Coccia is located away from the historic center of town as not to get lost in the sea of pizzerias located in that neighborhood. I sampled several dishes and pizzas but enjoyed the eggplant roll appetizer the most. A golden pastry-like crust surrounds a piece of sweet eggplant in this simple dish that precluded a barrage of pizzas (margherita, broccoli rabe + pork sausage, pizza bianca with mushrooms, nutella-filled pizza dough roll).