Cheap Eats: Fuoco di Napoli

Enrico Liberato heats up Buckhead pizzeria

“Have you been to that great Neapolitan pizza place with the cheesy Italian music blaring? You know, the one where you order at the counter then grab a seat at a communal table? Yeah, it’s got big sacks of Italian flour and cans of San Marzano tomatoes sitting all over the place, and wood stacked up outside to feed the hungry oven. What? Antico? Who? Never heard of it. No, it’s called Fuoco di Napoli.”

OK, I’m exaggerating. Everyone knows Antico. Especially, it seems, the folks behind Fuoco di Napoli. Not that there’s anything so secret about the Antico formula, but Fuoco follows a similar path with the not-quite-finished feel to the place, the Italian sodas, the fire-breathing wood-burning oven, the by-the-books “vera pizza Napoletana.” It also has Antico’s most celebrated former pizzaiolo, Enrico Liberato, manning the oven, working the dough, and training the staff. Liberato lives and breathes pizza. He actually built the large brick oven for Fuoco himself (I don’t think he chops all the fire wood himself, but you never know; he is that dedicated to the craft). And while Fuoco may not have the accidental charm and pulsing energy of its precursor a few miles south, it does have one thing Antico can’t claim — what I think is the best pizza margherita in Atlanta.

My first margherita from Fuoco was a jolting reminder of how good this paragon of pizza simplicity can be, from the expertly charred edge, to the slightly chewy though not doughy dough, to the buttery mozzarella (a mix of fior di latte and mozzarella di bufala), to the light and bright sweetness of the simple tomato sauce. It was pizza perfection. I’m sure masses of Antico acolytes will disagree, but, to my tastes, Fuoco’s margherita is better than Antico’s in just about every way — better crust, better sauce, better cheese. It’s verily a more “vera” pizza Napoletana.

That’s not to say that Fuoco is always perfect. Just two months old, it still has a bit too much variation from pizza to pizza, especially since Liberato is still getting everyone up to speed. The toppings are sometimes too carelessly tossed about, as they were on one of my visits when the slivers of spicy salami on the eponymous Fuoco di Napoli pizza settled into clumps that fought off any hope of achieving the appropriate degree of crunch around their edges. The ambiance of the place is just a touch too ordinary to fall into the calculated “we don’t care” category, but I can see it growing more comfortably worn with time. And to say that the staff behind the counter needs to grow into its role is an understatement. But with pizza this good, the scattered service and the vaguely anywhere-ish atmosphere don’t seem to matter so much.

Fuoco offers just a handful of options — seven different pizzas, one calzone, one salad. The classic margherita and marinara pizzas are exemplary in their purity, and the sauceless Caprese is not far behind, a lovely composition of mozzarella, olives, and bursting cherry tomatoes. The Fuoco di Napoli pizza does bring the heat (fuoco means fire), with spicy salami and Calabrian hot peppers doing a dangerous dance on your tongue. There’s even a “surprise pizza” where you place your fate in the hands of the pizza maker. Once you’ve covered the basics, this is a great option to keep things interesting, but I find myself being drawn back to the beautiful austerity of that margherita every time.

When you do give Fuoco a shot, I recommend starting at lunch, when there’s a $9 special that includes a smaller version of its pizza (9 inches, still plenty for one), a nice little salad with tangy olives and marinated cherry tomatoes (try the feta olive dressing), and a cold and crisp chocolate chip-studded cannoli to close things out on a sweet note. In Buckhead especially, that’s the best less-than-$10 lunch around. Every time I walk in for lunch, I fret that an onslaught of pizza Napoletana worshippers will be standing between me and my margherita; but, thus far at least, Fuoco di Napoli is still a somewhat hidden treasure. Ahh, sweet margherita, it won’t be long before your suitors are too numerous to count. Let us enjoy our time together in relative peace while it lasts. It won’t be long.