Pizza, as I’ve pointed out before, traces its roots to Italy, specifically to the seaport city of Naples in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. In the American melting pot, though, pizza has become as all-American a dish as, well, chow mein or sauerkraut.
From the American Northeast, where immigrant families still turn out a respectable variation on the Neapolitan original, pizza evolved as it moved across the nation in the postwar years. It gained a little here, lost a little there, and has gifted us with offshoots that range from the thick, casserole-like Chicago deep-dish pie to Wolfgang Puck’s California inventions with their wacky toppings of smoked salmon, sour cream and caviar.
Even Louisville boasts its signature pie, a breadlike crust heavily laden with sauce, cheese, toppings and more cheese, a variation made famous by such local temples as Impellizzeri’s, Clifton’s and Wick’s.
I’m OK with just about every kind of pizza, although I have been known to reject frozen supermarket pies or the flabby mass-market slices at Slugger Field.
But sometimes there comes a craving for the pure simplicity of the authentic Neapolitan original, the simple street-food dish of fine, thin Italian bread spun out until it is thin enough to see through, then topped with discreet tastes of tangy tomato sauce, creamy cheese and perhaps a bit of fresh basil, wood-oven fired to crisp, cracker-like perfection. This is walking-around food, street food, never intended to serve as a full dinner with leftovers for breakfast.
All this cultural drift raises an important question: Has modern American pizza evolved so far that it bears no more resemblance to the Italian original than a human to, say, an orangutan?
When I spent a few weeks in Northern Italy this spring, working as a wine judge and traveling wine writer, I made it my business to find out. By the end of my tour, stuffed to the gills with fine upscale Italian fare anyway, I was ready for pizza, from the land of pizza. Luckily, the friendly folks at Pizzeria Gardesana di Zaninelli Lorella in Bussolengo, outside Verona, stood ready to serve.
I studied more than 50 pizzas before settling on a most excellent Romano pizza (4.50€) with a big pilsner glass of cold Italian draft beer (3€) to wash it down.
This was one excellent pizza, and it wouldn’t seem entirely unfamiliar on a Louisville table. It was fair-size, enough to cover a large dinner plate, and it was almost paper-thin. It was topped with just a thin paint-coat of tomato sauce, a subtle portion of tender, creamy mozzarella and, in this Roman pie, salty fresh anchovies, not canned, sprinkled with a hearty dash of aromatic dried oregano. All the flavors and textures were harmonious, the base was crisp and cracker-thin with smoky char marks from the wood-burning oven, as flavorful as fine Italian bread. A gentle drizzle of fine, green olive oil over the top of the finished pie put the icing, so to speak, on the cake.
I ate the whole thing — a feat that would have been impossible with a piled-high Louisville pie — and came home with the details stored in blissful memory.
But could I replicate that memory in Louisville? When I’m in the mood for real Italian pizza without the American-immigrant accretions, can I buy it over the counter in the Derby City, or must I make my own?
I’m pleased to report that at least a few local pizzerias come close, and one or two just about hit the bull’s eye.
The most authentic Italian pizza in Louisville is the simple, wood-oven pie that Bim Deitrich offers at Primo, although Primo is hardly a pizzeria — it ranks among the best, and certainly among the most authentic, Italian restaurants in town. But the pizzas — directly descended from those at Deitrich’s old Allo Spiedo — could come close to making the grade in Naples.
From a list of about a dozen options, we chose the Bianconcini ($12), a combo surprisingly similar to the pie I had enjoyed in Verona. Thin but cracker-crisp, with seductive golden-brown woodsmoke marks on the dough, it was topped with sliced Roma tomatoes, fresh white anchovies and oregano, prudent amounts of creamy melted mozzarella, aromatic oregano and, for a touch of excitement, a shake of red-pepper flakes.
(We were in strictly to audition the pizza, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Primo’s Cozze en Brodo mussels ($8), a remarkable soup that contains well more than a dozen fresh, fat mussels in a seductively aromatic broth scented with fennel, curry and smoked paprika. Or the impressive and attractively priced all-Italian wine list.)
445 E. Market St.
Another favorite Louisville pizzeria is Tony Boombozz, now with three locations in the metro. Frankly, although Boombozz has earned a ton of prizes in local pizza competitions — and owner Tony Palombino will go to Naples to represent the United States in the World Pizza Cup in Naples this month — I’ve always thought of it as an excellent American pie with a hint of breezy California in its Kentucky accent.
They’ve recently been advertising a “Neapolitan Pizza” option, though, with an “Italian-style thin crust.” I rushed out for lunch and picked up a “Nonna” model ($9.99), a generous medium pie topped with Italian sausage, prosciutto, red onions, fresh mozzarella, Asiago and Romano cheeses and Boombozz’s pomodoro (tomato) sauce.
Sure enough, it came close to the Neapolitan mark, particularly in the thin, cracker-like crust and judicious rations of textured, flavorful tomato sauce, toppings and cheese. The Asiago and Romano cheeses add a level of dairy earthiness that those accustomed to mild cheeses might find challenging, but this turophile loved it.
Tony Boombozz Pizzeria
3334 Frankfort Ave.
(Also in the Highlands at 1448 Bardstown Road, 458-8889, and in the Springhurst area at 2813 N. Hurstbourne Pkwy., 394-0000.)
For a final calibration, we stopped off for a slice — OK, four slices, so sue me — at Luigi’s. This remains arguably the most authentic New York City-style pizza-by-the-slice vendor in town, albeit with stiff competition from the new Hero’s New York Pizza Pub (10509 Watterson Trail in Jeffersontown, 261-9339). Moved just down the block from its original location to make way for Proof on Main last year, Luigi’s did well in the move. Its new location, airy and bright, features comfortable banquettes and modern art that give it a “Proof Lite” feeling.
But it’s all about the pizza, and Luigi’s version is fine. The NYC style of pizza, like the strapping son of immigrant parents, is a bit bigger in all dimensions than the Italian original. A thin, round pie as big as a platter is painted with tangy sauce and topped with creamy cheese, cooked in a super-hot (but not wood-burning) commercial pizza oven and cut into oversize wedges, which are reheated to crisp the bottoms and melt the cheese when you place your order. Slices start at $2.99 (for plain cheese; a pepperoni slice is $3.69), and come on wax-paper sheets on paper plates, ready to fold in half and eat while you walk, street-food style. It’s not quite Neapolitan, but it is as New York as Gotham’s dozens of “Original Ray’s,” and I like it.
712 W. Main St.
Texas Roadhouse supports Harbor House of Louisville
You can enjoy a steak dinner and do a little good, all at the same time, if you’ll hustle your herd out to the Texas Roadhouse at 4406 Dixie Hwy., just south of Lively Shively. By dining on the first Thursday of each month and presenting a special coupon, you’ll direct 15 percent of your dine-in food and beverage charges to Harbor House of Louisville, an independent non-profit agency that offers skills training and employment programs for adults with disabilities.
Later Harbor House nights at the Dixie Texas Roadhouse will be July 5, Aug. 9 and Sept. 6. To get a coupon, call Harbor House at 719-0072 or download one from www.hhlou.org.
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