Grazing: Varuni Napoli
Tasting tradition at Luca Varuni's Morningside pizza joint
If any word has become a cliché in Atlanta's pizza wars it's "authentic." The idea seems to be that if a pizzaiolo is a native Neapolitan, imports his ingredients from Italy, has lots of experience, and uses the right oven, his pizza will exceed all others in taste.
But the authentic — better described as "traditional" in this sense, I think — does not guarantee any such thing in any kind of cooking. And, alas, that's the case at the new Varuni Napoli after two months. Mystified, I've had four meals at the restaurant — far more than is typical for a "first look" review — and I've yet to get a soulful buzz.
Chef/co-owner Luca Varuni has an incomparable résumé. A Naples native trained by famed Enzo Coccia of La Notizia, he is a rabid traditionalist. He made his name locally at Antico Pizza, the Santa Madre of Atlanta pizzerias. Frankly, he's been dissing Antico relentlessly, telling Atlanta magazine, for example, that he initially left because he "was not happy with the products I was making there. I like to keep stuff authentic." He uses that word constantly.
Among the traditional features of the new pizzeria — besides the San Marzano sauce, the mozzarella di bufala, the antipasti, the flour, the olive oil, the meats, the staff, all plucked from Naples — Varuni has installed two blue-domed Stefano Ferrara ovens, the staggeringly expensive and gorgeous favorite around the world. They dominate the open kitchen amid a surprisingly large space designed by architect and co-owner Giancarlo Pirrone.
Even if the pizza disappoints somewhat for now, the décor is just flat-out dazzling. Pirrone has wrapped the kitchen in a marble bar behind which glass cases display ingredients. Community tables (most can be pulled apart) and a few two- and four-tops fill the restaurant but don't crowd it. Color is focused here and there and is jewel-like. The radiant blue of the tiled ovens gets repeated in the front community table. Walk around a corner into a separate, rectangular dining room and a long ruby-red table backed by cans of red-emblazoned San Marzanos dazzles you. Beyond that is a terraced patio with a gurgling fountain in a small garden. All of this is virtually hidden behind an inconspicuous address in Clear Creek Shopping Center, across from Ansley Mall.
The menu's pizzas are divided into two broad categories: combo artisans, the majority, and a few classics — all red or white. So what have my friends and I tried? The traditional test, as Varuni has recommended to all, is the margherita that includes San Marzano tomato sauce, EVOO, fresh buffalo mozzarella, pecorino, and a few fresh basil leaves. Yes, the crust — like that of every pizza here — is billowy, slightly chewy around the exterior, and a bit wet in the center, but not too wet to lift and fold. For the cliché-obsessed, yes, the pies are slightly charred. Great.
The strange thing is the cheese. Am I wrong to expect distinct pools of the bufala that rise slightly above the red-coated crust? On my pie, the cheese was entirely melted into the sauce, completely losing its flavor to the strong tomatoes. I know that imported mozzarella loses flavor quickly, but I doubt age was the problem here.
You can tart-up the margherita by adding meats like hot or sweet soppressata, prosciutto, or pepperoni. Veggies like cherry tomatoes, olives, mushrooms, and artichokes are also available. Don't do that. I feel, and I stress this, that Varuni will improve the kitchen, so just don't do that.
Go instead for an artisan pie. But not the oro bianco that includes bufala mozzarella and ricotta, taleggio, pecorino, pancetta, basil and — nooooo! — white truffle oil. My Italian friend Frank was happy enough with his pizza until this ingredient that needs to be retired everywhere seized his palate. I agreed. A better pie at our table was the porreca piccante, a spicy red pie with bufala, hot soppressata, hot capiocola, a ragu of spicy pork sausage, cherry tomatoes, hot Italian peppers, pecorino, and basil. I know it sounds rococo, but I liked the tour of different varieties of hellfire.
The one pie I ordered that I'd call a flat-out failure was the scugnizzo — a baked "half-moon pizza," i.e, a calzone — stuffed with the bufala, ricotta, and salami, garnished with roasted mushrooms. Also in the mix: pecorino Romano, basil, and EVOO. The mushrooms were so desiccated I wasn't even sure what type they were. The crust was overly chewy and the interior bland. Here again, the principal, overwhelming flavor was the side cup of tomato sauce. I craved something to add some kick.
For starters my friends and I ordered the antipasto plate, the rice balls (arancini with seasoned beef and peas), and panzerotti (potato croquettes with parsley and pecorino Romano) as starters. The antipasto, meant to serve two, included the usual meats, cheese, and mixed olives, and, um, truffle oil. There was nothing to dislike on the plate but nothing to rave about. Ditto for the fried items. In fact, both were served too tepid for our taste. I haven't tried any of the desserts, only because I've eaten so much of the rest of the menu.
I suspect we're seeing what happens when a pizzaiolo makes the shift to manager and owner, trying to train a staff and oversee an operation that is no hole in the wall. But after two months, things should be running better. Luca Varuni's anima is floating out there somewhere and will come home to the kitchen soon, I hope.