For the last decade, Atlanta has been largely fixated on Neapolitan pizza, with one notable exception: a square, pan-baked curiosity that hails from New Jersey and goes by the name “grandma pie.” That pie, initially served at the modest O4W Pizza near the BeltLine in Irwin Street Market, is to the Atlanta pizzascape what the Clermont Lounge is to the city’s strip-club scene—a delightful nonconformist that creates an entirely new experience out of a formulaic one.
Then, after just a year and a half, O4W Pizza closed shop in 2016 and decamped to Duluth. Grandma-pie enthusiasts unwilling to make the trek had little choice but to return to their Neapolitan comfort zone.
Now, O4W owner Anthony Spina has returned to the old neighborhood with a new concept: Nina & Rafi. Atlantans had been eagerly anticipating grandma’s homecoming, but to their surprise, the beloved pie didn’t materialize on Nina & Rafi’s menu. Instead, Spina made the ballsy decision to introduce yet another pizza style to Atlanta’s Neapolitan-crazed masses. Could his Detroit Red Top possibly live up to grandma’s hype?
If you didn’t know that Spina was pure Jersey, you could probably figure it out by his accent and the way he dresses: black Givenchy T-shirt, lots of gold jewelry, baseball cap at a rakish angle. His business partner in Nina & Rafi, Billy Streck—who launched Cypress Street Pint and Plate near Georgia Tech nearly 12 years ago and later opened, with his wife, the slick Hampton and Hudson sports bar in Inman Quarter—is a little more difficult to figure out. (He’s actually from New York.) Spina and Streck have been friends for years, but Nina & Rafi, named after Streck’s grandmother and Spina’s great-grandmother, is their first joint business venture.
Yes, the Detroit Red Top is meant to be the game-changer, but there are two other styles of pie on the menu: a Neapolitan-ish classic round pie and, more impressive, a Jersey-style, thin, square pizza called Old Fashion, which is similar to the grandma pie.
But you’re here for the Detroit.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Detroit pie is its over-the-top thick crust, which requires that the pizza arrive on a cooling rack nestled into a pan, lest the crust become soggy. Its dough, essentially a baguette dough, is made by hand with the simplest of ingredients and rises for two days. Unlike a Chicago deep-dish pizza, which can weigh a ton, a proper Detroit pizza feels light but hearty. That’s exactly what you get at Nina & Rafi—if you’re willing to wait the minimum 25 minutes. Rectangular and crispy around the edges, with a raised lip of insanely delicious burnt cheese at the crust’s perimeter and a heavy load of marinara ladled atop the cheese, the Detroit Red Top is indeed an object worthy of widespread desire, as Instagrammable as it is tasty. Grandma would be proud.
Don’t sleep on the giant meatballs engulfed in red sauce and the golden fried rice balls oozing soft mozzarella, though you might want to skip the fairly pedestrian salads. And beware the soupy lasagna slopped onto a plate and the grilled artichoke appetizer, which left me choking on a bundle of abrasive scorched leaves.
Nina & Rafi’s wine list is unusually ambitious (what pizza place in Atlanta pours unfiltered Arneis and esoteric Sicilian reds?), and its entrancing collection of European aperitifs, amari, and fortified wines is further proof that this is a serious drinking destination. Italian cocktails include riffs on Negronis and spritzes, and the craft beers and Italian lager come in tall, distinctive, bulbous glasses.
Located in the still-somewhat-mysterious SPX Alley development, at the bottom of the hill that flanks the Studioplex parking lot, Nina & Rafi can be hard to find. There is no street access; instead, it sits directly on the BeltLine, catty-corner from Bell Street Burritos.
But once you’re finally inside, it’s a welcoming space. The design by Smith Hanes, including a splendid pattern of penny tile in the bar area, is expensive-looking but low-key. Plush red leather banquettes, distressed mirrors, custom-made industrial light fixtures descending from a shiny tin ceiling, hand-blown globes, and simple, sturdy schoolhouse chairs evoke 1930s New York.
Anthony Spina earned a name for himself with his Jersey-style grandma pie at the original (and now-shuttered) location of O4W Pizza. His return to the neighborhood with a splashier pizza place—and without grandma—might have been a letdown if not for his equally impressive Detroit-style pie. All in all, this marriage between a relaxed but stylish pizza place and a fun but sophisticated bar is a sure thing.
★ ★ ★ ★
661 Auburn Avenue,
This article appears in our June 2019 issue.