In Search of True Neapolitan Pizza

Whatever that may be.

High up on the back wall at Giannoni's Pizzeria, across from the TV and the graffiti-style mural, invisible to anyone waiting at the front counter for takeout, hangs a knowing wink: three movie posters. Three-month-old Giannoni's claims on its menu to serve "vera pizza napoletana," and its combinations are named the Rustica, the Alla Salsiccia, and the Capricciosa. But the posters—Do the Right Thing, Scarface, and Saturday Night Fever—say New York, not Naples, which is backed up by the fact that you can buy the pizza by the slice and choose toppings like Canadian bacon and spinach. No one wants to boast about making New York–style pizza anymore. Piecora's and A New York Pizza Place staked their claims decades ago, and though they're not budging, they're not flooded with competitors. Since Tutta Bella first opened in January 2004, Seattle has been all about Neapolitan pizza, complete with training and certification from the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (translation: Association of True Neapolitan Pizza). And yet: What comes to the table at Giannoni's is a very good facsimile of a New York pizza. A large margherita—a classic of classics, just tomato, mozzarella, and scattered basil leaves—has a crust as thin and crackly at the center as a Saltine and a poofed-up rim that is 99 percent air. The cooks use an industrial mozzarella (not fresh rounds of buffalo-milk cheese, as in Naples), but the mozzarella spreads out into a thin top layer, the oils separating from the solids so that a million pin-prick holes appear, letting the color of the tomatoes bleed through. It's a great cheese slice, and I'd be as happy to eat it in the East Village as I am in Westwood Village. Owners Donna and Quentin Burns both grew up in Oakland, Calif., and hired a local restaurant consultant to help them come up with a crust that matched the ones they loved best from their youth. So actually, what the Burnses are doing is a California version of a New York version of vera pizza napoletana. That's not so far from the origins, considering that the very first New York pizzaiolo, Gennaro Lombardi, was a Neapolitan immigrant who set up shop in 1905. Giannoni's is still working on whipping pizzas out at the high-demand periods (you may wait 45 minutes or more at peak times), and the salads—a gloopy Caesar, an antipasto salad covered in thick slices of cold cuts and canned olives—are pretty crude. Plus, the target audience of the bright, loud room is clearly teenagers. But if there's one reason to patronize Giannoni's, it's that glorious crust. Even when you order a more complicated pie like the Capricciosa, whose mushrooms melt down and prosciutto crinkles up as the pie bakes, or the eggplant, spinach, and mushroom Campagnola, the pizza makers spread all the toppings evenly across the pie so that the underlying dough still puffs and crisps evenly, blistering here and there. You must—actually, you won't be able to help yourself—eat quickly and passionately, because a half-hour after you've started, the crust has toughened, the cheese hardened, and your ardor exhausted itself. For two steps closer to la vera pizza napoletana, you'll have to go to the newest branch of the quickly expanding Via Tribunali. Caffe Vita owner Michael McConnell's three-year-old pizzeria has spawned a Queen Anne branch, with a Georgetown sister due in early 2008. The new location, located on Galer three blocks west of Queen Anne Avenue, has more of a tavern-meets-trattoria-meets-millionaire look than the original's vaulted, gothic drama. Yet Tribunali II is almost as attractive, constructed of the same dark woods, wrought iron, and black-veined marble. Tribunali chef Dino Santonicola is a certified pizzaiolo from Naples, and the restaurant has taken all appropriate steps to establish its authenticity through the AVPN. According to the associazione's Web site, Via Trib II is the 21st U.S. restaurant to pay a start-up fee, plus annual dues of $200, and pass an inspection of the restaurant's pizza-making production in order to call its pies "true Neapolitan pizza." (America has one such authentic pizzeria less than Japan, by the way.) I've written before about my frustrations with some of Via Tribunali's pretensions, but its pizzas do come out consistent, good-looking, and tasty. No, sorry, I can't let one complaint go: Giving your pizzas Italian names is perfectly fine, but to list all the ingredients in Italian, too? It makes the 98 percent of customers unfamiliar with acciughe and polipo fight with their own insecurities, debating whether to commandeer the busy waitstaff to translate the entire menu or just pick out the simplest pie they can identify. Via Tribunali's margherita D.O.C. ("denominazione di origine controllata," a sort of regional trademarking) is the purest expression of what's great about the Neapolitan style: A few pools of buffalo mozzarella and three or four whole basil leaves decorate the pie, white and green spots against the tangy red tomato sauce (which, by the way, must be applied in a spiral motion, says the associazione); the thin crust stays droopy in the center, while the narrow lip of the pie softly inflates and browns (regulations require it to cook between 60 to 90 seconds in a wood-fired oven whose temperature must approximate 450 degrees Celsius). Almost as tasty, though slightly darker and denser, is a salumi pizza tiled with thin slices of salty coppacola that brown and curl around the edges. They are good pizzas, and if you're up for a $30-per-person meal with good service and wine, Via Tribunali fulfills its mission. Authenticity isn't as important to me, however, as a light, flavorful, char-kissed crust. Which is why, after five true or false Neapolitan pizzas, I had to revisit the one that has become my favorite: The margherita pizza at Filiberto's Italian Cuisine in Burien. Filiberto's has been around so long that it was actually reviewed in the first issue of the Weekly three decades ago (side note: The review was written by Starbucks co-founder Gordon Bowker under the pseudonym "Lars Henry Ringseth"). It's been around so long that what was then considered authentic Italian food—dishes like bucatini carbonara, meat ravioli with red sauce, and meatballs offered on the side—would be considered authentic Italian-American now. And after 32 years in business, Mina Perry still runs the kitchen, though she's not a vera napoletana; her family comes from Avellino, 15 miles away. Pizza is a relatively new addition to the menu; it was only added in 1982. Sure, it can be a touch heavy on the cheese, and it's not creamy, fresh-made mozzarella to boot, but, oh, that sauce! Just crushed tomatoes, so fresh-tasting the fruit's natural sweetness comes through. And that crust—airy and delicate, but not so delicate that it sogs at the center of the pie, and lightly washed in alderwood smoke. Like all the best pizza, each bite is different: the sharp crackle of breaking crust here, the soft tug of melted cheese there. I hereby certify it delicious.

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