Daniel Zemans, our man in Chicago, checks in with another piece of intel from the road, this time in Atlanta. —The Mgmt.
Jeff Varasano was first exposed to homemade pizza at the age of 3 when he briefly lived with his pizza-making grandmother. A few years later, the Bronx-born Varasano regularly made pizzas with his mother, starting with store-bought dough. When he moved to Manhattan in early adulthood, his apartment kitchen made pizza-making impossible, but he was exposed to a whole new world of pizzerias that he explored regularly, oftentimes stopping at Joe's on Carmine Street, which remained his favorite for years.
Within days of moving to Atlanta in 1998, the software engineer started making his own pizzas once again. On trips home, he would make sure to go to Joe's but also started following recommendations to try out other places. On one of those early trips, he had a life-changing pizza at Patsy's and, upon returning to Atlanta, began a six-year quest to recreate the crust he had there.
Two things elevated Varasano to pizza legend status. First, he documented every aspect of his work online in extraordinary detail. His final manifesto is still available on his website. To say the man is a Pizza Obsessive is a colossal understatement; in coming up with his recipe, Varasano estimates he tried 50 types of flour, tomatoes and cheese (that's 50 each!) and nearly 100 kinds of olive oil. Second, in his quest for the high heat of a coal-burning oven, Varasano deactivated the safety latch on his oven so that he could open it while it was on its self-cleaning cycle, during which it reaches temperatures that oven manufacturers consider unsafe. Eventually, his obsession was deemed newsworthy by the New York Times.
From there, there was really only one place to go, and that was to open his own pizzeria. And so early last Spring, Varasano's opened its doors in Atlanta. Varasano is hardly the only untrained chef who went from cooking pizza at home for friends to opening up a restaurant. But Nick Lessins at Great Lake in Chicago (reviewed here and here) and Bill Coury at Flying Squirrel in Seattle (reviewed here) both had the advantage of starting in obscurity and building up reputations over time. Varasano opened to expectations of exceptional pizza and had to hit the ground running. According to some early reports, there were understandably some consistency issues in the beginning. But now, less than a year and a half after opening, things are running smoothly.
The Nana is the house special and is pretty much a Margherita but with the addition of "a secret blend of Italian herbs" Varasano got from his grandmother. I started out the meal with a Nana, but with the addition of sausage, and I received an exceptional pizza. The first thought I had was that while I knew he based his recipe on Patsy's, the pizzas at Varasano's were so much better than Patsy's that comparing the two is an insult to the newcomer.
The conversation about Varasano's pizza has to start with the crust. In developing his mastery of pizza-making, Varasano was so focused on developing his crust that he didn't bother putting toppings on his pies for six years. The result is the epitome of the crisp exterior/soft interior crust. And thanks to some salt and the use of a sourdough starter, the crust has a taste every bit as good as the texture.
At Patsy's, as is unfortunately the case at more than a couple of New York's top pizzerias, adding sausage consists of simply taking an encased sausage designed for eating on a bun, slicing it up and adding it to the pizza. In some cases, pizzaiolos actually put the sausage on the pizza after cooking is complete, denying the eater the joys of pork fat soaking into the pie. Fortunately, Varasano avoids those shortcuts. He starts with a relatively unseasoned pork sausage that he removes from the casing before adding some spectacular seasoning, highlighted by an amount of fennel reminiscent of housemade sausage from some of Chicago's better old-school tavern pizzerias.
My second pizza was the Salumi, which comes with salami along with mozzarella, sauce and mixture of heavily marinated diced olives. For the most part, the pizza was delicious, but it was not quite at the level of the sausage pie. There was a whole lot of salami on there, which I appreciated. There were two kinds of salami on there, the specific types of which remain a house secret. The olives were not spread evenly across the pizza, which resulted in some bites being way too salty. And the combination of olive oil from the marinated olives and fat from the salami created bit more liquid than the crust could handle. So in eating that pizza, I had to follow the instructions that are printed out and encased in plastic on the table, teaching eaters the proper way to fold and eat a slice of pizza. Wetness and occasional olive salt bombs aside, this was still a delicious pizza.
And, as should be expected at this point, the crust on the second pie was every bit as good as the one on the first. Years of a very public quest for the perfect pizza have paid off handsomely for Varasano. He is justifiably very proud of his work and now ranks his pizza among the top ten in the country, a claim he was unwilling to make when he last updated his pizza rankings online last year. I avoid making such rankings myself, but I'm not going to argue that he's wrong.
So what's next for the poster child of self-taught pizzaiolos? He's got a stellar pizzeria that is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, so there's not a lot more he can do with that location. The only option at this point is to add some more locations. Nothing is imminent (or at least not enough to tell me about it), but he foresees one or two more locations in the Atlanta area and locations in other to be determined cities as well.