“I’m in heaven,” said my friend, describing that special kind of uplift you can only achieve from long-distance running, true love or intensive carbo-loading.
I passed another of the four bowls of pasta on the table to her. “Try this one.”
My wife, friends and I have picked at our salads, devoured two thin-crust pizzas and are now floating on a pasta high as the bowls circle the table. One is rich with cream and cheese, another bright and saline with flecks of tomato and Manila clams. One you stab, another you twirl. We are giddy with the food at Vingenzo’s.
This two-year-old Woodstock restaurant has become a destination for Atlantans looking for ingredient-driven Italian food as well as a local treasure for those lucky enough to live nearby. To say this restaurant serves pizza and pasta doesn’t tell the whole story. The mozzarella is made in-house, the Neapolitan pizzas fashioned from all-Italian ingredients and cooked in a wood-burning oven, and the pastas of every shape and size, strand and spiral, are made daily. Before your brain can even process the question of whether or not you like the food, your palate recognizes the flavor of fresh.
Indeed, owner/chef Michael Bologna and his partner Gary Slivenik know their ingredients. The two lead an interesting Batman-and-Robin existence. During the day they run the culinary program at Chattahoochee Technical College; at night they repair to this sunny corner space in a retail strip in old downtown Woodstock — just along the railroad tracks and across the street from the Right Wing Cafe.
Bologna — who grew up in New York in the kind of Italian family where a home cooking project might result in 500 ravioli for the extended clan — keeps the menu simple and focused squarely on the fine ingredients in his larder. He prepares a dozen or more appetizers and salads, and an equal number of thin-crust pizzas that, in European fashion, are portioned as individual entrees.
The pasta program is interesting: each night Bologna prepares three fresh pastas that you can mix and match to the standing list of sauces. In the kitchen they come together with a light touch that allows every component — even those scattered slivers of basil — to register on the tongue.
Start with a tasting of house-made mozzarellas ($18) — the best way to grok the spirit of this restaurant. Bologna sources fresh cheese curd from American producers and produces latte fresco (cow’s milk) and bufula (water buffalo) cheeses — the former mild, sweet and stretchy, the latter moist and saltier to underscore its delicate tang. These two share the plate with stracchiatella di burrata, cow’s-milk mozz wrapped around a soft filling of cream and marscapone. Capers, roasted peppers and cherry tomoatoes, olives and a few drizzles of oil offers bursts of contrasting flavor.
So there’s the cheese. You want more? Of course you do! In fact, I might gingerly suggest you skip an overdressed arugula salad ($9) heaped on a chewy round of pizza dough and get right to the reasons you’re here.
The pizzas certainly merit a spot on the Atlanta short list. Blistered with fat bubbles at the edge, glove-thin in the center — these are the pizzas for those of you who can’t stand the weak, puddly middles of some other Neapolitan pizzas around town. A thin veneer of San Marzano tomatoes, bufula mozzarella and those all-important basil leaves adorn the margherita ($12) for a correct version of the classic.
Given the super-thin crusts — crunch here, flop there — these pizzas seem more appealing as vehicles for bigger flavors. The fico e prosciutto ($15) combines a respectful sheen of fig preserve with 24-month-aged Parma ham (sheer and rosy), gorgonzola crumbles and fresh arugula leaves. Folds of flavor, this thing.
As much as I like and admire these pizzas, I can’t say I love them with all my pizza-passion heart yet. Bologna makes them with only Caputo 00 flour, Italian water, salt and fresh yeast without any of the fat that some add to tenderize the dough. I admire the purity of flavor, though these pies do tend to toughen as they cool. They seem to support the toppings rather than meld with them.
But I do love the pastas with abandon. Thin spaghetti con vongole ($16) sing with the briny flavor of clam liquor infusing its spicy tomato sauce. Handmade fusilli (extruded from a machine and left to air-dry in the afternoon) arrive baked al forno ($16) with mozzarella, handmade ricotta, roma tomatoes and (dryish) pellets of house sausage. This is not bubby, gooey, Sunday-dinner-on-”The-Sopranos” ziti al forno, but something lighter and fresher.
This kitchen likes fresh. Even the funghi d’estate mushroom sauce ($14) comes with dusky slivers of shiitake mushroom, tomato, basil and olive oil rather than cream. It’s an ideal sauce for the kitchen’s shimmery egg-white fettuccine.
That said, Bologna does have a gutbuster or two up the sleeve of his chef’s jacket. If the night’s special involves lobster and shrimp in a parmesan cream sauce ($23), don’t even think of resisting. It hits that macaroni-and-cheese spot dead on.
Vingenzo’s is open for lunch only on Friday and Saturday, but I highly recommend it. The bright dining room — with its plate windows, open kitchen and clattery tile — floods with light and good energy. There are no pastas at lunch, but the kitchen makes an interesting pasticcio di maccheroni ($8) — a sweet tart shell filled with pasta, mushrooms and sausage. It’s odd but charming and brings to mind “Big Night” — never a bad thing.
If you prefer your tarts for dessert, may I steer you to the ricotta cheesecake ($7), studded with marsala-plumped raisins and chocolate chips? I thought so.
I mean, you’ve had cheese and carbs — fresh, delicious, happy-making cheese and carbs — for every course. Why stop now?VINGENZO’S 105 E. Main St., Woodstock, 770-924-9133 Food: Neapolitan pizza and pasta Service: Knowledgeable and attentive; helps you understand this is no typical pizza joint Best dishes: Fresh pasta with clam sauce or mushroom sauce, pizza with figs and prosciutto, mozzarella tasting, ricotta cheesecake Vegetarian selections: Quite a few. Vegetarians will be like cows in pasture here