”Is not a’ fake oven like weet legna in front and deh back is gas. Forno a legna, solo legna.”
In every way, Gran Gusto is a product of Naples.
That’s not just a comment on the owners of this trattoria (who hail from just outside Naples) or its menu (heavy on the eggplant, seafood, and handmade pasta). The restaurant runs on Neapolitan time. It’s a bit dysfunctional, in a way that’s endearing if you’re patient, frustrating if you’re not. Nearly all ingredients are flown over from the old country: better olive oil; higher prices. Service is competent, but aggressive—as gracious as he is, Antonio, signore of the floor, will have opinions on your order, and you will be informed of them. It’s a family-run business with a somewhat shadowy power structure. If we take it a bit farther, it’s in a largely barren area of North Cambridge; hardly lawless Napoli, but certainly a less photogenic stretch of the city.
But the Neapolitans know their pizza. And with a wood-burning brick oven firing pies in minutes and a seasoned Italian chef tossing dough in the back, Gran Gusto turns out what is now my favorite pizza in the Boston area.
Trans-Atlantic chef Giuseppe Castellano, born outside of Naples and trained in Italy, has put in time in the New York circuit, cooking at San Domenico and Luzzo before shipping up to Boston. His brother Antonio works the floor—and boy, does he work it, greeting walk-ins with a buona sera! and kissing lady guests' hands. On any other waiter, it would seem obsequious. On him, it seems perfectly natural.
We chatted about a number of dishes, all of which he proclaimed bellissima or stupendo—but when we got to the pizza, Antonio's face truly lit up. He brought his hands together and closed his eyes in a reverent gesture Italians usually reserve for fine wine and beautiful women. "Sono italianissimo. Our pizza like a' in Napoli. Real bufala mozzarella. It puff in the crust. It is not to get better in all of the Boston."
And the oven?
"Is not a’ fake oven like weet legna in front and deh back is gas. Forno a legna, solo legna."
Wood-fired, bufala mozzarella, it puff in the crust—I'd heard all I needed to.
We started with the margherita ($12)—and I'm so very, very glad we did. New York pizza cognoscenti, imagine a slightly rounder, slightly less olive-oily version of Motorino's basic pie. I would have liked to see a little more mozz-melting, and a touch more char. Other than that, I could not have imagined a better pizza.
The sauce was a perfect marriage of tomato and olive oil, bright and a touch sweet, wet but not sloppy. The cheese—Antonio couldn't stop talking about "the real bufala," but he didn't need to tell me; delicate and creamy, it could have been nothing else. The basil on top had clearly been picked that day.
And the crust was textbook Neapolitan. An initial crunch but an immediate chew. Thin in the middle, just barely enough to support the pool of sauce and cheese; tender and doughy around the edges, a springy cornicione, the kind you want to rip off and devour.
I wanted to love the Salsiccia e Friarelli ($16)—piled with broccoli rabe, sausage, and more bufala. But the rabe was too much, too cooked, and too bland; it cried out for more olive oil or even a sprinkle of salt. Every so often, a bite would yield a nugget of sweet sausage or milky mozzarella, but only to disappear in another mouthful of green. Leaving half the rabe on the plate, we were much happier.
But the crust, again, neared perfection. Good charring, good leopard-spotting.
And still puffy in the middle, after half the pizza had disappeared—leaving behind that perfect pizza dust, the traces of flour and char.
I'm not partial to smoked mozzarella when the fresh stuff's around, but my dining companion insisted we try the Sorrentina ($15), which, given the chef's time cooking around the Amalfi Coast, was probably a good test. And I was surprised by just how much I loved it. Cherry tomatoes, the sweetest I've had in this sad tomato season; gently fried eggplant; pools of still-creamy mozzarella, better melted and better dispersed, the smoky flavor pairing nicely with the char of the crust.
Despite our best efforts, a few pieces remained, opening up an opportunity for one last test: the day-old slice. The next day, the crust was as pliant and chewy as ever; the cheese softened perfectly with a moment under the heat. Even on Day Two, this was memorable pizza.
As we walked through the parking lot, the smell of burning wood cut through the crisp night air. It could have been a house nearby, lighting a fire against the strangely cool, autumnal night; or it could have been Gran Gusto's burning legna, firing another few pizzas for another table of happy eaters. I'd like to think it was the latter.