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Early Antics at Antico Pizza Napoletana

Posted By: Bill Addison · 9/30/2009 2:23:00 PM
This may sound familiar to some of you: I sat down at my desk yesterday, began clicking through my daily round of the local food blogs, and—hello—saw that Ms. Jennifer Zyman had done found herself (via meta-Yelper Kit Fenton) a new obsession-worthy destination: Antico Pizza Napoletana in west midtown (1093 Hemphill Ave., 404-724-2333). God, I love good pizza. I experienced my awakening in the mid-90s when I went to Totanno’s on Neptune Avenue in Brooklyn, and while kicking around the country a year later, I stayed in Phoenix for two months and practically lived at the original location of Pizzeria Bianco on Camelback.

As for Atlanta, my meals at Varasano’s have, in general, been better than some other’s experiences, and I haven’t yet been back to Fritti to try the craftsmanship of the latest imported pizzaiolo (I’m hearing the pies may, finally, be less soupy). But the sight of this Antico pizza roused hope that the city has just landed its third serious Neapolitan-style pizza restaurant.

I arrived last night at about 7:45 to find the place filled—mostly with Georgia Tech students. And by "filled," I mean that a bunch of us were standing around waiting for our pies. Antico opened one week ago, and for now it is primarily dinner take-out, beginning at 4 p.m. on weekdays. There are no chairs, but wooden counters stretch around the entrance, and if you’re serious about pizza, I’d encourage you to grab your pie as soon as it’s given to you and eat it on the spot.

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The pizza makers—Luca Varuni and ex-Fritti pizzaiolo Enrico Liberato—were sporting the crimson neck kerchiefs that now automatically make me think of Mattin on Top Chef.

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There are nine pies from which to choose on the menu. I ordered a margherita with sausage, and the “lasagna” with ricotta and slices of meatballs. It took about six minutes to cook the pizzas.

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First impressions: Sexy char; substantial, chewy, complexly tangy crust; more cheese than one usually finds on Neapolitan-style pies; perfectly pitched tart-sweet sauce; the sausage and meatballs had nuanced seasoning. The crust began crisp but grew sodden quickly, so we ate fast. All in all: Wow. Come try this now.

After both pizzas were nearly mangled from fevered snarfing, my buddy Jimmy and I fell into conversation with owner Giovanni Di Palma. Now here’s a guy we can trust to lead the way in pizza excellence in Atlanta.

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Raised in New York, with deep roots in Naples, Di Palma was cooking pizza in New York when a family member told him six months ago that a bakery was for sale in Atlanta. Di Palma said he came down, took one glance, and announced, “I’ll take it.”

He imported three Acunto ovens from Naples and installed them himself (with the help of two homeless guys—ask him to tell you the story.) For true pizza geeks, Acunto was the brand of oven that Anthony Malgieri used at Una Pizza Napoletana in Manhattan. The 00 flour used at Antico is milled in the tiny town, Cimitile, where Di Palma’s grandfather was raised. (He uses San Felice flour, not the more common Caputo.)

He has his game plan in place: During the day, his operation is primarily wholesale. He’ll be selling individual-sized Neapolitan pizzas meant for home preparation to Whole Foods. They are, as he puts it, “quasi cotto”—ninety percent cooked. The kitchen puts the bufala mozzarella on the pies after baking them, so the cheese melts nicely in home ovens.

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He’s also planning lunch eventually, when he’ll be making smaller, more delicate pizzas than the ones he’s making currently for carry-out.

Of special note: A table has been set up in the kitchen that can soon be booked for special meals. Di Palma and his staff will roast meats, vegetables, and other dishes in the magic ovens for an Italian feast.

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Oh, he's also having an iPhone app developed so folks can order pizza at the press of a portable button.

If he’s been quiet about his opening, Di Palma said that, though wholly confident about his product, he’s also a little wary of the online hostility around the ATL “pizza wars.” But I sense this guy will soon be feeling a whole lot of love from this community.

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