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30 Restaurants in 30 Days: Varasano’s Pizzeria

IMG_0004.jpg.scaled500After 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.

13 comments Add your comment

F-105 Thunderchief

November 9th, 2009
12:35 pm

We are indeed.

Thomas SENOR

November 9th, 2009
12:48 pm

When are you going to EAT AT PAPPI’s!!!! EAT THERE ALREADY….

Jim R.

November 9th, 2009
1:47 pm

John-Enjoy your current 30 in 30 and typically appreciate your comments and insight. As tough as it is to get the maximum amount of info. into such a short column I can understand shortcuts being taken, but I would really like to hear more about their pizza than how good the crust is. What toppings are offered? What type of salads and appetizers are on the menu? Any specials you particularly enjoyed? Also have you been to Jagger’s since they moved to Sage Hill. Is it as good as it used to be?

Darin

November 9th, 2009
4:32 pm

Atlanta has so many good places for pizza now.It’s ridonkulous. Between Fritti, Baronda, Antico, Varasano’s, Vespucci’s and Rosa’s, it’s difficult for me to resist eating pizza every day. Even good ole Fellini’s makes a decent cheese slice that I enjoy.

My pizza-enjoyment experience has come a long way since the Pizza Hut and Dominoes days — not to mention the Chef Boyardee kits my brother and I used to use for making pizza at home as kids. They were messy fun but they made some some naaaaasty pizza.

John Kessler

November 9th, 2009
5:51 pm

Hey, Jim –
See what you mean. I think I was preaching a bit to the choir with this post. Varasano’s makes two kinds of basic tomato pie — the Nana’s (pictured) has an herb-laden, cooked tomato sauce; the margherita has very plain tomato and cheese. I really like both, though I usually find the margherita needs a touch of salt. I love the white clam pie, which features loads of garlic, clams and a bit of mussel meat to give the flavor more oomph. Also, the dolce with fontina cheese, honey, dates and touch of rosemary is weird and amazing. Really like this place.

Jim R.

November 9th, 2009
7:00 pm

Thanks John..Sounds great and it is right around the corner. Appreciate the update. I realize all I had to do was look up the menu on their webpage but if everything the restaurant owners claimed was true really WAS true then we wouldn’t need food critics and I certainly would not want to live in a world like that! What about making your next project 30 bars in 30 days?

sha.chanel

November 9th, 2009
9:17 pm

Our family tried it the other day and we thinks its great.

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Jen

November 10th, 2009
12:33 am

Jeff Varasano is an idiot.

John Kessler

November 10th, 2009
8:31 am

Jim – That should make for some very lucid, descriptive copy…

Pizza Love

November 11th, 2009
7:24 pm

Those in the engineering/science fields know that a lot of times the things that work the best are the ones that are the simplest. That is what makes Giovanni’s artisan pizza the best.

Perhaps Jeff is trying too hard, trying too apply too much complexity to solve a problem (making delicious pizza that would be warmly welcomed by Atlanta). Perhaps the architecture he laid down is flawed. Don’t mistake me for being an anti-Varasano; I’m a fan..a tiny bit disappointed fan. There’s no mistaking the man has passion for producing consistently good pizza and I hope he gets there. He’s got a lot of debugging to do (and probably a press of the reset button). Jeff Varasano has added good to Atlanta’s pizza scene.

The formula that makes Antico drive me and my family back again and again:

1. Delicious food.
2. Atmosphere. The communal table, though a bit awkward at first has grown on us and it would not be Antico without it. Being able to see them make your pie, and if your lucky to be invited to the kitchen, is part of the trip. There’s something that makes you feel connected and more comfortable sitting amongst people delighting in the same dish as you are. It feels like you’re all in the same tribe for some reason.
3. Giovanni, Luca, Enrico and the rest of the staff are genuinely warm and friendly. It’s feels like they’re like old friends or family cooking you a good meal.
4. $ matters so for the price point, they’re still reasonable for me to take my family almost twice a week if not more. As long as the price is reasonable, we hope to make eating at Antico a family tradition.

falcon

November 12th, 2009
11:16 am

There are a lot of things that aren’t perfect about Varasano’s but the pizza is the best in the city by a long shot. Beautiful, perfectly balanced flavors and a crust that is flavorful, light, and the most consistently tasty in town.

Who cares if he is an incessant self-promoter, has made some ill-advised and hostile remarks about other restaurants, and the restaurant is flashy and devoid of charm? You’re there for the pizza. The man is a pizza genius and we are very lucky to have him here, warts and all.

I think one thing that people forget (even some who ahould know better) is that pizza is very difficult and there are a lot of variables that come into play…even the best restaurants in NY and CN have on and off nights. I’ll take frequently brilliant over consistently good pizza any day.

Ande

November 17th, 2009
4:43 pm

I don’t get how people aren’t put off by Antico’s consistently soggy dough in the center. I’m not a fan of needing to rebake my pizza when I get home before I eat it. I love it that Varasano tinkers with his formula and cares enough to want to put out a consistently delicious product. I’m ready for him to try a few different toppings though, I’ve been through each one at least twice. :-)

[...] Varasano’s Pizzeria — former software engineer Jeff Varasano’s labor of obsessive love — was named one of the top eight in the nation. The top prize was awarded to Phoenix’s storied Pizzeria Bianco. [...]