The quest for authentic Neapolitan pizza continues, this time in Toronto, where I learned that the city has four Verace Pizza Napolitana (VPN) certified establishments that adhere to the strict recipe and craftsmanship standards set by this Italian DOC organization.
First, if you’ve never had a real Neapolitan pizza, forget everything you ever knew about pizza, even if you’re well versed in the various other varieties. Of course, it’s only when you have one that you can go, “Aha!”, and remember all the arguments you may have had with friends about the “best pizza”. Montrealers typically grow up with either the Greco-Roman variety (medium thickness crust with tons of toppings), or what I call California-style pizza (very thin crust, lots of cheese, usually mozzarella, and other toppings), often referred to as Neapolitan style, but as it turns out, with no resemblance whatsoever.
The first thing you notice about a VPN pizza is the crust: Thin in the middle, thicker on the outside, and very light and airy. It’s always cooked in a very hot wood-fired oven at around 800F, and comes out in about 90 seconds, with some well defined charred areas on the outside, giving it a smoky flavor. The tomato sauce is made of fresh crushed San Marzano tomatoes, uncooked, that have probably been passed through a food mill. The cheese is dabs of Fior di Latte, a type of fresh mozzarella akin to Mozzarella di Bufala or bocconcini. It is also topped off haphazardly with a few basil leaves and some oil. That’s it, that’s all, for the basic Pizza Margherita (the reference standard).
It is simply delicious and deliciously simple. This doesn’t mean I don’t like other types of pizza. Each has its time and place, and as Mr. Dario would say: “It’s all good”. But it is important to have a reference standard from which one can then make comparisons, and the VPN pizza is certainly “it”.
I tried three places in my visit this week:
Pizzeria Libretto: I went on a Tuesday night at around 6:30 PM and it was packed! Beautiful decor and ambiance; very jazzy and trendy. It was my first taste of a VPN pizza and it was wonderful. On the table in two minutes from time of order. Washed down with a very nice Perone beer. Great service, lots of cool people to look at. The pizza was followed by an excellent arugula salad.
Next day at lunchtime, I went to Pizza e Pazzi. The place was empty but it was likely the late lunch hour and the fact that it was raining cats and dogs. The pizza was excellent, as good as that from Libretto. The service was polite but perfunctory (as in, “What the f*^k are you doing here at 2 PM?”). The decor was bland and the the space seemed cramped.
By evening, I was almost pizzad out. It was raining. I’d had a long day. I was tempted to just order room service rather than drive to my next VPN pizza place. But a little voice whispered, “Don’t do what you always do and take the comfortable way out”. So I went to Viva Napoli, and man am I glad! No web site (they’ve been open a little over a year, so I’m sure it will come).
It was 7 PM and I was the only customer (traditional thinking says this is a bad sign – but I’ve never tended to follow traditional thinking). In fairness, a family and a few other folks showed up while I was there.
When the owner, Giustino Iorio, heard I was on a VPN pizza quest, he took away the menu and said, “Leave yourself in my hands”. I got what Hemingway used to call, the “true gen”, an insider’s view of the world of Neapolitan pizza. He explained the methods, the ingredients, the traditions, etc. He yelled to his pizza maker in Italian, “Make one as if you were making it for me”.
It was fabulous. Maybe Giustino’s enthusiasm added to the flavor (we tend to judge taste through context as well as the food itself), but frankly, it was the best of the three that I tried that day; richer, juicier, softer! It was so good, I started eating it before realizing I hadn’t taken a picture!
After I had finished my pizza and a Perone beer, Giustino insisted I try a Ripieno, a calzone stuffed with Fior di latte mozzarella, ricotta, cooked ham, spicy salami, and black pepper. Oh, Mama! I didn’t think I could possibly have room, but amazingly, even after the Ripieno and a glass of Gragnano, a special red wine served very cold and with a hint of natural fizz, I felt very comfortable.
Giustino let me tour the kitchen and take a few photos of the oven. On the way out, he gave me a package, on the house, of rolled up pizza dough layered with Nutella and covered in some sweet cream, for dessert at home. I was stuffed but managed to eat it at 10 PM with the news.
Man, I love this place. You gotta go!
679 Mt Pleasant
Toronto, ON M4S