After getting my serious pizza fix on yesterday at Antico Pizza Napoletana, it seemed only right to revisit Varasano’s Pizzeria — the restaurant that, when it opened eight months ago, set off a new dialogue in this city.
At that time, Fritti had reengineered its Neapolitan-style pizza and gave diners a compare-and-contrast experience that some brilliant person online labelled the “Atlanta Pizza Wars.”
These days it seems the battle lines have been drawn closer to the Antico/Varasano’s front.
But rather than call a winner, I find it much more interesting to consider the two on their own merits.
Antico’s Giovanni di Palma learned his trade apprenticing in some of the most famous pizzerias in Naples. He is a traditionalist in that he uses only the true ingredients (Type “00″ flour, San Marzano tomatoes) for a real Neapolitan pizza. His crusts emerge from his wood-fired ovens smoky, charred, stretchy, crisp on the edges and a little puddly in the center. The flavors are fresh and gorgeous. These are true Neapolitan pizzas.
Di Palma cooks from the heart, and his makeshift prep kitchen/pizzeria seems filled with life and good cheer. This is the real version of Italian spirit that the Buca di Beppo chain has replicated throughout the country.
If di Palma cooks from the heart, then Varasano cooks from the head. A software engineer by trade, Varasano got into the pizza business after spending years experimenting at home — a quest that earned him great Internet fame and led me to write this story, which appeared on the front page of the AJC.
Varasano cares not at all for the old-school traditions of Neapolitan pizza. He will use whatever flour works best, devise recipes no Italian would recognize (Emmentaler cheese, anyone?) and commit what some see as the ultimate pizza sin: he doesn’t use a wood-fired oven. Rather, he has a custom-built electric deck oven that keeps the temperature above the pizza 100 degrees more than the temperature below it. This, he thinks, is the key.
Because, for Varasano, it’s all about the crust. This man lives for a Platonic ideal of crust that is thin, light, well puffed and yet absolutely crisp on the bottom.
As Varasano has learned, cooking hundreds of pies in a restaurant every night is very different from making a dozen for a dinner party at his house.
Some night, the scores of variables that can affect the dough work in his favor, and his crust comes close to what he wants. Other nights it doesn’t have enough puff, or it goes soggy in the center. Soggy, for a Varasano’s pie, is failure. On at least two occasions, Varasano was so unhappy with his crust that he gave everyone in the dining room gift certificates and asked them to leave.
The restaurant doesn’t have anything like the funky, makeshift heart of Antico. It’s all chilly tile, shiny plate windows, granite surfaces. Antico serves only pizzas and pastries. Varasano’s must play at being more of a full-service restaurant, so there are some serviceable salads, cocktails and desserts.
I’ve been many times and had all manners of pizza at Varasano’s, from small miracles to limp-centered also rans. On this last visit (the pies are pictured above), the crusts were thin and gorgeously crisp on the bottom, but not as well raised as they have been in the past. Still, I was very happy to eat this pizza. Varasano, making the rounds, said he was disappointed with the crusts that day, though he has been generally happy with them over the past two months.
That is Varasano’s fate. He is a scientist, and he will see a thousand variables that can change his pizza crust, and he will never be able to control all of them. As he battles the demons of inconsistency, he will give this city a lot of remarkable pizza.
I’m glad we have our two passionate pizzaiolos in Atlanta — the one who cooks from the heart, and the other who cooks from the head. We’re a far better city for their efforts.