Tuesday, August 7, 2012

[HOT LIST] Neapolitan pizza

Mani Osteria. All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

There has been a growing trend in metro Detroit recently, and one that has been happening relatively quietly. No, it's not upscale BBQ or upscale comfort food -- those trends have been anything but quiet. But while we have continued to bow at the altar of the almighty mac and cheese, coal- and wood-fired pizzerias are increasing in number (not to mention overall quality), and more specifically, Neapolitan-style pizzas are quickly nipping at the heels of their Sicilian-born Detroit-style deep dish brethren.

Pizza gets a bad rep. Typically thought of as the garbage pail gut-bomb it has been bastardized into courtesy of America (USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA!), when people think of "pizza" they think of grease-soaked dense pan-cooked crust gobbed with dripping piles of cheap cheese and piled over with a zoo's worth of animal flesh. While I have a certain passion for such pedestrian pizzas like the fat Midwesterner that I am, not all pizza is so offensive to refined tastes. Neapolitan-style pizza is defined by high-quality, fresh, simple and healthy ingredients -- unbleached flour, fresh mozzarella, exceptional produce, extra virgin olive oil. In its truest Neapolitan form, pizza is actually quite healthy.

There is a very specific set of criteria that qualifies a pizza as "Neapolitan," but there are only two pizzerias in metro Detroit that are officially certified as such. For the purposes of this Hot List, I'm looking at places that are Neapolitan in spirit if not 100% in practice. Taken into consideration is size, shape and flavor of the dough; the quality and caliber of ingredients (prosciutto, yes; Canadian bacon, no); whether the pizza ovens are coal- or wood-fired; and, as is the case with any Hot List, whether or not I like it.*

The Margherita pizza at Antica Pizzeria Fellini.

#1 Antica Pizzeria Fellini (Royal Oak)
For more about the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, scroll down to #4. Got it? 'k. So this place is metro Detroit's other VPN-recognized Neapolitan pizzeria, and it's the real deal. This place is the most like an actual restaurant in Italy out of any of the faux-Italian eateries I’ve ever been in – it’s just a space, a simple space they obviously made some effort to make it look nice but otherwise a room in a building, nothing more. The owner is ever-present, presiding over the restaurant from his post in the very open kitchen, making all the food himself and personally checking in with all the customers. (For a little added authenticity, he even has an Italian accent). There was once a time when Il Posto was the most "Italian" place in Detroit, reminiscent of the highly-orchestrated fussy fine dining at Michelin-rated restaurants in touristy Toscana. Antica is countryside Italian, a small family-owned spot that exists solely to serve good food to their "extended" family, the customers. This is hands-down the best Neapolitan pizza I’ve ever had in Michigan. The dough tastes like flour, salt and yeast with a bit of wood smoke – in other words, exactly what it is, a mere canvas for the superior tomato sauce and creamy mozzarella. Their house-baked bread used for their bruschetta would also make excellent fettunta, and I wouldn't be surprised if they would in fact make it for you if you asked.

#2 Pizzeria Biga (Royal Oak, Southfield)
The custom-built brick oven chef-proprietor Luciano del Signore had flown in from Italy is pretty much the Ferrari of pizza ovens. Actually I think said it best when I said, "The showpiece of the place is the 6,000-pound Ferrari-red wood-burning oven hand-made in Naples, Italy by Stefano Ferrara who is (channeling Cher Horowitz), like, a totally important designer. (Of ovens.)" Also, I am apparently fond of the Ferrari comparison. Real talk: this is not the best Neapolitan-style pizza of the bunch; several others on this list and listed as "bubbling under" are better. But do any of those other places have 24 international craft beers on tap and a beer store in their basement? No they do not. Extra bonus for the use of their own house-made charcuterie like duck prosciutto, which if you HAVE to pollute your pizza with animal carcass then this would be the place to do it.

The Margherita pizza at Tony Sacco's.

#3 Tony Sacco's Coal Oven Pizza (Novi, Ann Arbor coming soon)
It's a casual joint that manages to strike the perfect balance between pedestrian pizza gluttony and European refinement. You can read more about their $50,000 custom-built oven that burns extremely expensive clean-burning coal here; see also all fresh ingredients and everything made from scratch with no freezers, no microwaves and no fryers anywhere in the building. For a place that feels like such a casual sit-down pizza place, their commitment to quality is unmatched. The pizzas themselves toe that line of excessive American meatiness, but their Margherita is the real deal and the Bianco is bang-on. And also also also also the garlic rolls.

#4 Cellar 849 (Plymouth)
As Michigan's first certified Neapolitan pizza recognized by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (VPN) -- the "pizza polizia" -- of Naples, Italy, Cellar 849 adheres to the strict regulations that respect the tradition of true Neapolitan pizza, including a custom wood-burning oven, hand-rolled dough, and fresh, all-natural ingredients. They use some of the highest-quality imported ingredients available, including Fior di Latte mozzarella, Denominazione di Origine Protteta (DOP -- the produce polizia) San Marzano tomatoes, Italian extra virgin olive oil, prosciutto di Parma and Caputo flour. Their Italian-built wood-burning oven is the same as those used at the flashier Pizzeria Biga joints, and the remainder of the menu is just as delightfully Italian, including the (somewhat predictable) wine and beer lists. Yes, I just plagiarized myself here.

#5 Crispelli's Bakery + Pizza (Berkley)
Make no mistake, this place is a clusterfuck. It is so much of a clusterfuck that I'm not even sure why anyone would even make the attempt to go there on a Friday night. Don't go on a Friday night. All the traffic controllers and little metal signs with numbers on them designating your assigned seats in the open-seating cafeteria-style restaurant cannot make this any less of an exercise in tedium, nor does it make up for the fact that you have to wait in six different lines just to cobble together a single meal and if you don't stand in the middle of the register area with all of the other blank-looking meat bags you'll have no way of knowing when your food is ready. Pizza? That's one line. Salad? That's another. Drinks? Look, don't make this complicated: go on an off day at an off time and order one of their "Authentic Italian" thin crust pizzas. Despite all of the MANY inconveniences of ordering, their pizza is worth the hassle. (Just not on a Friday night.) Another thing I like: the self-serve structure means your $10 pizza really is $10 -- none of the added charges of sitting down in a restaurant with a server, ordering drinks, having to tip, so on and so forth until your $10 pizza becomes a $25 pizza. If you want to stuff your face on the quick without the fuss but still have high standards, this is the place to go.

Bubbling under Terra Cotta Pizzeria (Windsor), Tomatoes Apizza (Farmington Hills, Novi), Spago Trattoria E Pizzeria (Windsor), Vito's Olde Walkerville Pizzeria (Windsor), Mani Osteria (Ann Arbor), Fresco Wood Oven Pizzeria (Rochester Hills)

*Gas ovens have been excluded. Supino uses a gas oven. Is that a bad thing? Certainly not. The best pizza I ever had in my life was made in a gas oven. But that is not for this list. I have to draw the line somewhere, and I drew that line at coal. Because...I did. Because I can. So there. Still more places not listed here -- Vinsetta GarageUnion WoodshopBad Brad's BBQ Shelby Twp.J. Baldwin'sMotor City Brewing Works -- use wood-fired pizza ovens (as I said, this is becoming quite the trend), but their pizzas didn't quite meet my very loosely-defined Neapolitan-ish criteria. 

Antica Pizza Fellini on Urbanspoon