Woodstock’s top draw wows with wood-fired pizzas and fresh pastas

Driving thirty miles north to Woodstock from Downtown Atlanta seemed like a short trek when sensational pizza was the payoff. I was in the midst of a metro-wide pizza hunt in February, and glowing Internet reports had lured me to Vingenzo’s, which sits near the railroad tracks in Woodstock’s historic commercial district, where buildings erected in 1879 still stand. It was an early Saturday afternoon following a wintry night of snow and ice, yet the dining room hummed with business. The restaurant has obviously found an audience in this growing town of nearly 25,000 people.

Then again, finely calibrated pizza is a self-sustaining business plan—and a rarity—no matter what its location. We ordered three pies: a basic margherita with the restaurant’s handcrafted buffalo mozzarella; a variation with roasted red peppers and house-made sausage; and the Vesuvio with mozzarella, ricotta, black olives, and wild mushrooms, overlaid with swaths of sheer prosciutto slices.

When they arrived, scents of campfire and freshly baked bread permeated the air. Speckles of char dotted the thin crust, which was pliant but crisp and retained its texture as it cooled. (For local pizza aficionados, I’d say the crust more resembles the style of Varasano’s or Fritti than the voluptuously lipped pies at Antico.) The sauce danced between sweet and tangy. Circles of cheese melted evenly across the surface. Toppings seemed like bonus embellishments rather than crucial injections of flavor. This was, unquestionably, some of the best pizza I’ve eaten in the South. “You should come back at night,” said the server. “The chef also makes his own pastas for the dinner menu.”

Vingenzo’s, I can affirm after subsequent visits in milder weather, is indeed worth the trip for more than just the pizza. And let’s face it: 2010 has thus far been one of the slowest years in the last two decades for ambitious, independent Atlanta restaurant openings. A modest jaunt to an exuberant meal can help lift intown dining doldrums.

Vingenzo’s is the kind of place many Atlantans would love to have in their own neighborhoods but don’t: a reasonably priced restaurant energized by a chef with a sustained obsession for the cuisine he loves. Michael Bologna, a New York native, has worked in restaurants and taught cooking for thirty-five years. After trips to the Campania region of southern Italy, Bologna longed to emulate the sense of hospitality and freshness he encountered there. He found a space in Woodstock not far from his day job as lead instructor at Chattahoochee Technical College’s Center for Culinary Education.

Inspired by the margheritas he’d savored in Naples, he built a tiled, wood-burning oven in the restaurant’s open kitchen to bake pizzas. He and business partner Gary Slivenik opened Vingenzo’s in December 2008. (I asked Bologna about the idiosyncratic “g” in the restaurant’s moniker, an old family name. “It’s spelled phonetically so people can say ‘Vincenzo’s’ correctly,” he said.)

Bologna delivers on his goal of warmhearted hospitality. His head is a salt-and-pepper blur as he zips between the kitchen and the large, light-filled dining room, where he greets regulars and introduces himself to newcomers. And his background as an instructor pays off: He’s trained his young servers to carry themselves with an air of assurance and graciousness that belies their ages.

One of the staff will probably recommend that you precede pizzas and pastas with a tasting of the restaurant’s three house-made mozzarellas, a wise suggestion. Approach the platter by starting with the firm latte fresco, which pairs well with the accompaniments—roasted peppers and cherry tomatoes, capers, and olives. Move on to the burrata, a cylinder of mozzarella with a buttery, semisolid core infused with heavy cream. Save the buffalo mozzarella for last. Juicy and dulcet, with a jot of peppery olive oil for contrast, it’s a treat to taste it unbaked and a harbinger of the wood-fired goodness to come.

Refresh the palate with a clean-tasting salad such as the arugula with lemon oil and balsamic vinaigrette. An appetizer of pureed white beans served with “pizza bread”—akin to pita—is soothing stuff, but you really want to save your appetite for both pasta and pizza.

Pastas require mix-and-match decisions: The menu lists nearly a dozen sauce options, and servers will describe the pasta shapes available each day. Spaghetti and fettuccine are staples, as is a sturdier variety such as fusilli or rigatoni. Bologna largely eschews richness in his pastas to instead achieve a gossamer texture, particularly in the noodles he makes using egg whites instead of whole eggs. And the sauces, too, are light and generally unfussy—a tumble of artichokes, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, and basil glossed with olive oil, for example.

If you hanker for a richer preparation, choose the Al Forno: fennel sausage, mozzarella, tomatoes, and ricotta all baked with one of the more robust pasta options. (Weekend specials, such as a wild boar ragù offered in March, also tend to be more complex.) I’m inclined to request the Al Forno alongside the Frutti di Mare—shrimp, mussels, and clams in a white wine–garlic sauce—with fettuccine. The seafood jumble perhaps needs a bit more salt or garlicky punch, but it flatters the weightlessness of the noodles so satisfyingly.

Consistency can be an issue with restaurants that serve Neapolitan-style pizza, but I’ve found Vingenzo’s pies to be steady, particularly in the crisp crust department. Bologna even tackled the challenge of gluten-free pizza (and pasta). That pizza possesses the off-kilter mouthfeel of a soft cookie, but I bet the customers who can’t eat wheat are mighty grateful regardless.

No matter the diet, his flourless almond-chocolate torte is a moist, fragrant masterpiece of Italian baking. The elusive fruitcakelike essence that first hits the taste buds comes from a splash of limoncello. To gild this rewarding finale, ask for the torte with a side of bracing grapefruit gelato (homemade, of course).

“Customers tell me all the time, ‘We ate so much but we don’t feel full,'” Bologna said in a phone interview. Given the rustic yet buoyant quality to his food, that’s easy to believe. I’ve personally gorged to the point of discomfort during every meal. But then again, if Vingenzo’s operated in my community and I didn’t have to drive forty-five minutes to reach it, I’d eat pizza and almond-chocolate torte once a week and learn moderation. Perhaps. —Bill Addison

105 East Main Street, Woodstock
HOURS Dinner Monday–Thursday 5–9 p.m., Friday–Saturday 5–10 p.m. Lunch Friday–Saturday 11 a.m.–3 p.m.

Photograph by Amy Herr. This review originally appeared in our May 2010 issue.