His reputation certainly preceded him.
The buzz around Fuoco di Napoli (Fire of Naples), the newly opened Neapolitan pizza restaurant in Buckhead, quickly spread through the blogosphere. And it all stemmed from the man working the oven: Enrico Liberato. Pizza-heads should recognize Atlanta’s most notorious pie-slinger as the former pizzaiolo at Fritti, Antico and (briefly) Vingenzo’s.
But Liberato soon may earn the nomadic, pied-piper status for Neapolitan pizza that Peter Chang garnered for Szechuan cuisine. He can’t seem to stay in one place for very long.
Although the details around his departure remain fuzzy and management has declined to elaborate, co-owner Lori McDowell confirmed that the rumors are true: Liberato is no longer with Fuoco di Napoli.
Opened last December in the space formerly home to McTighe’s Irish Pub at Peachtree and Pharr roads in Buckhead, the restaurant has a calculated hole-in-the wall décor. Cans of DOP tomatoes prop up steaming pies atop the thick wooden communal-style benches that line the patio. Pizzaiolo credentials and signed pizza paddles adorn the walls.
I never got the chance to dine on one of Liberato’s pies before his mysterious departure in March, but the man’s fingerprints are all over the pizza that Fuoco churns out now, and that is definitely a good thing.
Fold the crisp, chewy crust of your slice of the classic Regina Margherita ($14) — careful not to lose any of the bufala and fior di latte mozzarella cheese — and savor that first bite of easily one of the finest Margherita pies in the metro area.
As is always the case with well-made Neapolitan pies, the ingredients make the difference, and Fuoco passes that test. The fresh mozzarella blend and lightly sweet tomato sauce are both pitch perfect, and the char was just to my liking — heavily blistered, adding just enough bitterness for complexity without overwhelming.
Those who want to crank up the heat should look no further than the namesake pizza, the Fuoco di Napoli ($17). Topped with the same tomato sauce and blend of mozzarella as the Margherita, slices of spicy, flavorful salami and a handful of bright red Calabrian hot peppers give this pie a nice kick.
Being the type that likes to be left sweating after a spicy meal, I might wish for more heat, perhaps in the sauce itself, as you really have to get one of those peppers to get a big jolt of burn.
Looks of surprise and a chorus of oohs and aahs go round our table as the calzone Napoletano ($15) arrives. Puffed with steam to epic proportions, this is clearly one of their full-sized pizzas folded over and filled with sauce, mozzarella, ricotta, ham, spicy salami, basil and olive oil. At first glance, it is monstrous.
But once it deflates as we cut into it, I notice something unusual: This calzone doesn’t have 15 pounds of cheese in it. Unlike many of the pizza shops in town, Fuoco doesn’t overload its calzone with so much cheese that you are left wondering if the other toppings made it in there. The dough is stretched so thin that the steaming dome crackles with each bite and doesn’t leave you feeling like your meal was all lactose and carbs.
If you are feeling spontaneous, spring for the pizza Sopressa ($17) — the “surprise pizza” — and trust the chefs to pick your toppings for you. It is such a surprise that the front of house doesn’t even know what the chefs will whip up, so don’t expect any inside tips. I roll the dice and get a satisfying pie topped with artichoke hearts, black olives, cherry tomatoes and ham.
While Fuoco di Napoli does nearly everything right, there are a few kinks to work out. Consistency is a factor. Some pies arrived with too much char, taking that bitterness from a complement to a distraction, and at least one arrived oversauced, soaking through the thin crust.
There is no alcohol on the menu, and though originally BYOB, the landlord — and their lack of a liquor consumption license — recently put a stop to that. I hope they settle that stand-off, because these pizzas go well with a beer or glass of red.
It is obvious that Liberato passed on his recipes and techniques to the team running the kitchen now, though they may need a little more time.
But the needed adjustments are minor and they are already well on their way. I don’t know that I could name this the best Neapolitan pie in town just yet, but Fuoco di Napoli certainly deserves a spot in the conversation.
Note: The restaurant news and business blog, Tommorrow’s News Today, recently broke a story relating to a pending lawsuit involving Fuoco di Napoli. AJC Food & More will post our own follow up addressing the issue tomorrow morning on this blog.Fuoco di Napoli 30 Pharr Road, Atlanta