This story originally appeared in our January 2013 issue.
The phone rang in Mike Virga’s office in Union, New Jersey, one morning three years ago: “I hear somebody going, ‘I want some of that good Lioni mozzarella. Come on, sell me some. It’s me, Giovanni.’ I’m saying to myself, Who’s breaking my chops? I have no clue. But he’s talking like a Brooklyn guy. So I says to myself, In one minute I’m going to hang up. Then he goes, ‘You in front of a computer?’ I says, ‘Yeah.’ And he says, ‘Go to my website.’ So I do. Then I says, ‘Hey, Giovanni, how you doin’!’”
As vice president of Lioni Mozzarella and Specialty Foods, the nation’s biggest importer of di bufala mozzarella from Naples, Virga knows pizza. But Antico Pizza Napoletana was special. Zagat last year named its food among the best in our city, behind only Bacchanalia. “Believe the hype,” wrote the Saucy Server blog. “What’s there not to love?” asked the Cynical Cook. It seemed like a lot of fuss for a paper-plate pizza joint—and in Atlanta, Georgia, of all places.
Still, Antico’s owner, Giovanni Di Palma, was buying more cheese than most distributors do. Virga and his partner at Lioni, Charlie DiSalvo, had to meet this customer. “He was taking how many tins of ricotta?” Virga asked rhetorically. “Forget it.”
The cheese men have patronized famous pizzerias around the world and know an imposter when they see one. “I own a pizzeria for chrissake,” DiSalvo told me, finally at Antico for the first time on a chilly night more than a year ago. The white-and-tan brick bunker of a building off Hemphill Avenue, on Atlanta’s Westside, was steamy with bakery heat and loud with opera music amplifying the spectacle of Di Palma making pizza: It was theater as much as food service. Low benches flanked three long, wooden communal tables, with stools around a fourth, and all of them were filled with people eating, talking, and staring toward the open kitchen area. Like DiSalvo and Virga, those who weren’t yet eating watched and waited for a taste.
Twenty feet away, Di Palma worked his ovens as an aria climbed from the speakers. In a tight shirt that revealed a bulky, unseasonably tan upper body, he flamboyantly tossed dough, disseminated cheese, and sowed toppings, admiring his art. Eventually he set a hot San Gennaro—sausage, cheese, peppers, cipollini onions—before the Lioni men: “Forget everything else,” Di Palma proclaimed. “This is pizza.” On the wall behind him was a poster: “What It Takes to Be No. 1.”
For a minute, DiSalvo and Virga were silent: rapt consumption. Then came the struggle to find words: “The dough, the crust, the sauce, the sausage, the ambiance,” DiSalvo stuttered. “It’s like Naples. It’s a pizza factory where everything is perfect.” A bead of sweat trickled down his nose. For a moment he seemed almost sad. “We had to come to Atlanta to get the best pizza we ever had.”
Satisfied, Di Palma took off his apron and greeted a few regulars, one of whom called his pizza “sex on crust.” The maestro pizzaiolo has the face of an aging Baldwin brother after a debauched beach vacation—bronzed, puffy, good hair—and a New York–inflected voice that radiates street-level confidence as he tells stories. Like the one about how Tom Brady and Gisele joked that they wanted to adopt his twelve-year-old son, Gianluigi (also called Johnny), whom Arthur Blank’s daughter has a crush on: “Tom,” he said, “who’s gonna be my partner in the L.A. store, he had his arm around my son for thirty minutes! He said Johnny reminded him of what he was like as a kid. Gisele said he was the most beautiful boy she’d ever seen . . .”
Or the one about how he lived in his car, essentially homeless, just a few years ago. Or how he’s been shoe-shopping at Niketown with Mayor Kasim Reed. Or how he and LeBron James relaxed at a Buckhead spa together.
“No way,” a Georgia Tech student exclaimed after the LeBron tale. “I swear to God,” replied Di Palma. “It’s in the AJC.”
Turning from the incredulous kid and pointing to the workers behind him, Di Palma went on: “You see this whole dance going on back there? It’s like a symphony, and I’m the conductor.” Eight employees—including his brother, Giuseppe—returned our stares. “If I had to teach one person everything, it’d take three years.”
Back in the kitchen, Di Palma broke it down. “When I make a Margherita,” he said, grabbing prepared dough, “I put the cheese on first. I’m the only guy that does that.” He scattered the cheese. “This is the only place on planet Earth that has three of those in one building.” He pointed to his Acunto ovens, which, he explained, were custom-made in Italy. “Up in the dome, it’s a thousand degrees.” He pushed in the Margherita, after adding a few dollops of tomato and garlic and basil: “That pizza will cook in sixty seconds.” He removed it a minute later, admiring the mottled red-and-white pie.
“People say, ‘What’s the secret to your sauce?’” Di Palma went on. “I just crush these blood-red tomatoes.” He laughed. “People always want to know your secrets.”
Here at the corner of Hemphill and Ethel, before Antico opened its doors in 2009, before Giovanni Di Palma hosted a birthday party for Mayor Reed, before Di Palma even imagined turning this intersection just off of Northside Drive into Atlanta’s own Little Italy, a homeless man named Big Mike used to get high and collapse on the grass. One spring afternoon almost four years ago, Di Palma arrived and fed Big Mike pizza in exchange for his help: moving ovens, watching the parking lot, taking out the trash. Big Mike had never tasted pizza like this before.
Arthur Blank, Owen Wilson, Chris Rock, and (probably) your mother have followed, joining laymen and critics from Buckhead and Decatur, Nashville and Peru. They all gather inside the house that Giovanni built, and they mangiano under fluorescent lights, Vivaldi and Rossini piped in through the speakers. Some 700 pizzas are consumed here each day, in a place that doesn’t much look like a restaurant but is arguably Atlanta’s most beloved. Pizzas are about $20. No slices, no delivery, hardly any seating, and no apologies. This should not be a formula for success, but even the names behind Georgia’s best restaurants struggle for apt superlatives. The Diavola pizza, with its hot peppers and sopressata, “makes all other pizzas (and sometimes me) cry themselves to sleep at night,” wrote Cynthia Wong, formerly of Empire State South, on the Chefs Feed app. Peter Dale, of the National in Athens, called Di Palma’s Margherita pie “simply the best pizza this side of the Mason-Dixon line.” “It’s like dining in his basement,” Kevin Rathbun, chef and owner of Rathbun’s, Krog Bar, and Kevin Rathbun Steak, told me. “You’re right there in the mix of it all. I thought it was a brilliant idea.”
But if success has many fathers, success in the pizza business evidently has many sons. Insolent sons, if you ask Di Palma. Coincidentally (or not), at least two of the newest arrivals on the local pizza scene— Ammazza in the Old Fourth Ward and the short-lived Fuoco di Napoli in Buckhead—trace their roots to Antico. The owners of the former served as Antico franchise consultants for a year, while the owners of the latter were some of Di Palma’s earliest investors. Don’t expect Di Palma to darken Ammazza’s door anytime soon. As for Fuoco, he sued its owners, claiming they stole his ideas, right down to the open kitchen and rustic dining area. Di Palma isn’t just on the attack; he’s had to play defense, too: The lawyers for a man who won a default judgment against Di Palma in 2009, stemming from a failed dot-com, are eager to see their client finally paid. And to top it off, Di Palma’s ex-wife sued him last year in a contentious custody battle involving their son, whom she says she hasn’t seen in eight years.