Twain Harte, California: Pizza Under the Pines at The Prospector
23092 Fuller Road, Twain Harte CA 95383 (map); 209-586-1313; prospectorwines.com
Pizza style: Neapolitan
Oven type: Wood-fired
The skinny: Amid beautiful surroundings, The Prospector offers great wood-oven, Neapolitan-style pizza that's certified by the VPN
My quest for eye-opening, palate-pleasing pizza recently compelled me to pack up the car and head north. Up California's spinal Interstate 5, past dusty farm towns, many reeking with a bovine stench, up through the sloping, oak-dotted foothills, and on to the spectacle called Yosemite.
Exiting the Wawona Tunnel, I was spellbound by the iconic landscape of Yosemite Valley, monoliths El Capitan and Half Dome standing guard, while Bridalveil and Vernal Falls generously cleanse all visitors. Somehow I could see right through the carloads of tourists, with their baby strollers and camera phones, and visually breathe in the same monumental forces that captivated John Muir more than a century ago. Yosemite's grandeur transfixed Muir and inspired him to fight for the protection of this natural wonder from the rapacious and unquenchable appetites of America's great industrialists.
Whew! That's the power of Yosemite, as anyone who's ever been there can testify.
And speaking of appetites, enough with the tree-hugging, nature-loving daydream. I was here for pizza! So, back in the car, on through the depths of the Valley, and back up and out of the park, to the heart of "gold country" (as in the '49ers, for those unfamiliar with California history). Twain Harte, Sonora, Columbia, and the other quaint, if somewhat touristy, villages in the area typically attract visitors in search of railroad and mining history, as well as those seeking to hike, hunt, and fish in the area's immense expanse of "wilderness." Not exactly the setting where one would expect to find great pizza, but I knew that somewhere nestled among the whispering pines of Twain Harte, stood The Prospector, of all things a VPN-certified pizzeria and wine bar.
Proprietor, pizzaiolo, and sommelier Robert Martin began, in the fall of 2005, to actively pursue his dream of opening a pizzeria. He first acquainted himself with another local pizza shop with the goal of one day purchasing and transforming it to his own vision. Then, while investigating the traditions of Neapolitan pizza, Martin came across the VPN. Its well-defined and "simple" approach to making pizza spoke to his own culinary muse. So Martin contacted Peppe Miele, president of the American branch of VPN, underwent the training, and then opened up his restaurant in October 2006.
Martin's vision for his restaurant includes a relaxed, communal and artisanal dining experience. To this end, he offers a small number of diverse wines appropriate for the daily menu, shared tables, and either homemade or locally sourced food.
During the warm months, dining takes place on the cozy deck, so I walked through the front room and stepped outside, where I feasted my eyes on a lovely sight, a wood-fired oven glowing golden orange. Things were looking good. Time to order.
We started with the house salad, which, I must say, took simplicity a bit too far. Emerson himself might have cried out for a cherry tomato or two had he been served this bowl of greens. And now for the good news...
The first pie, the Margherita, was visually stimulating. The crushed ruby flesh of imported San Marzano tomatoes, ivory pools of fresh mozzarella dabbed with golden streaks of extra virgin olive oil, and emerald slivers of basil sat seductively atop a nicely charred crust.
Still, the first bite would reveal the truth. And the truth is that the pie did not disappoint. The fior di latte, smooth, creamy, and hand-pulled by Martin, was the perfect partner to the spicy sauce. And the crust, made from "00" imported Italian flour, cooked for roughly 90 seconds, easily carried the cheese, sauce, and locally procured basil. This first crust, nicely charred and bubbled, though quite good, was perhaps a bit too dense. Martin, like most pizza-makers, is often plagued by tempermental dough. But the crusts improved with each pie.
The next pizza, the Rustica, was my favorite of the evening, and not only because I love pork. Consisting of house-cured pancetta, fresh mozzarella, and basil, this pie brought an instant smile to my face. All of the pie's elements commingled in a delicious culinary union, and I devoured slice after slice. The crust, airier and with a greater chewy quality than the previous pie, completely disappeared; I used the last few pieces of it to greedily sop up the last drops of oil on the tray.
The Diavolo, the final pie of the evening, left me a bit frustrated. The crust was nearly faultless, but I could barely eat the pizza. Now, I know what diavolo means, but this was the hottest pie I'd ever eaten. The chiles overwhelmed the tomatoes, salami, and asiago cheese to the point that I couldn't even feel the texture of each bite. My mouth must have been numbed by the heat. Still, I managed to eat three slices — that's what professionals do — but sweat drenched my scalp after only a couple of bites. I loved the crust and wanted to devour it, but I had to throw in the towel.
I love hot, spicy food but was not up to this food challenge. In this confrontation between "man vs. food" (forgive me, Adam Richman), food definitely won.
I'm now beside myself. Not only can I wallow in the natural beauty of Yosemite and the Sierras, I can head to Twain Harte and sit down to a truly satisfying pizza feast. I can almost hear the birds chirping and the mozzarella bubbling. It might be time to hit the road again.