I apologize for the title's cheesy pun,* but I'm all fired up after eating some stellar pizza at Ah'Pizz, a relative newcomer wood-fired-oven Neapolitan (WFON should be a radio station!) joint to the New Jersey scene. Montclair is more known for local celebrity Stephen Colbert, but if Ah'Pizz maintains quality control and further develops its game, someday the town will be known for this WFON delight.
Co-owner Chris DeLisio, a pizzeria veteran, visited Las Vegas pizzeria Settebello and thought the restaurant concept would work well in New Jersey. Not long after pitching his idea to co-owner Mike Lamorte, they met upstart pizzaiolo Robert Cino while he was working the pies at Roberto Caporuscio's Ridgewood-based A Mano. Robert had already trained in Italy for half a year learning from pizza masters in Naples and Pompeii. After buying famed Naples-based oven-maker Stefano Ferrara's largest oven model and finding their current Montclair space, the doors opened in February 2010 and the rest is history.
When I visited, Joe Formoso, the current manager, informed me that they were running the temperature at 1,300° F by using a variety of fruit woods, hickory, and oak to fuel this rotund beauty.
I'm usually skeptical of locations touting VPN certification, but this place took the certification to heart and employs extra effort to produce excellent pizza. It's by far the best of this style that I've had in New Jersey; I'll have to check out Nomad in the future to compare. It doesn't hurt that they sent Joe to receive VPN certification last summer at Antica Pizzeria in Los Angeles from none other than the organization head himself, Peppe Miele.
To demonstrate the quality of the training, Joe showed me an interesting tip he picked up. Instead of using semolina or flour to dust the oven floor, he spreads a thin veneer of ash from the fire. In a dramatic explanatory flourish, he threw a handful of flour into the oven that instantly flashed into a puff of smoke—it definitely wouldn't stand up to the heat.
The Margherita's cheese-to-sauce ratio tipped a slight heavier than my usual preference toward cheese, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it. The creamy and tangy Lioni Latticini fresh mozzarella, one of my favorite pizza cheeses nowadays, served its purpose well. For the sauce they use a blend of tomatoes, San Marzano representing only a small percentage of the mix. That's not a complaint; the sauce was perfectly seasoned with Sicilian sea salt and had the fruitiest tomato flavor I've had in a while. Its slightly sweet tang perfectly combined with the vibrant flavors of the basil, crust, cheese, Parmigiano-reggiano, and olive oil.
What a crust! Ah'Pizz's usage of Caputo tipo "00" flour, fresh yeast, and one- to three-day cold fermentation definitely paid off. The crumb was soft, supple, puffy, and packed with a fragrant yeast flavor. The crust was perfectly done on the bottom and not too soggy in the center, thanks to the cheese's moisture content. The char imparted the perfect amount of caramel flavor to bind all of the other pizza flavors together.
The only possible issue I had lies in the relative lack of crispness at the edge—I found the "pizza bones" slightly tough to eat. Don't worry, though. I didn't let all of this delicious bread go to waste.
According to the menu, the Pizza di Montclair came topped with white truffle oil, basil, cherry tomatoes, porcini mushrooms, pecorino sardo, and Parmigiano-reggiano. I could have sworn it also had mascarpone or ricotta because the deliciously smooth and basil-accented cheese topping had a thick, creamy texture, unlike most melted hard cheeses. The mushrooms were earthy and flavorful. As they combined with the cheeses, the taste and texture reminded me of a good alfredo sauce. However, the slightly sweet but overall flavorless cherry tomatoes left me underwhelmed. Given the $18 price tag for this pie, I'm not sure I'd order this one again. I can get the same flavor profile for less by ordering fettucini alfredo at a good Italian restaurant.
I've always been a sucker for calzones, but the Mezza Luna caught my eye. It's a half pizza–half calzone creation that comes with Margherita toppings and Kalamata olives on the pizza side and with stuffing ingredients of fresh ricotta, fresh mozzarella, sausage, roasted peppers, Parmigiano-reggiano, basil, and extra virgin olive oil in the calzone side. Although I love Kalamata olives, I worried that their potent saltiness would overpower the pizza. Indeed, they were salty and strong, but a spare hand yielded the perfect amount for the pie.
The calzone's creamy ricotta had an enjoyably slight sweetness. I particularly liked the sweet fennel sausage's preparation technique — it came in pre-toasted/pan-seared chunks. Those toasted brownings elevated what would have been an otherwise ho-hum, run-of-the-mill fennel and pork flavor. My main quibble with this dish was the roasted pepper — I love this ingredient as a flavor, but I found pieces overly large. They would combine better with the rest of the ingredients if they were chopped into smaller bits.
There you have it folks. A worthy new entry in the WFON category. Formoso told me they had recently expanded the dining room and added a kitchen. I'm not sure how they're going to be able to serve a full restaurant with only one oven, so watch out in the future for possible consistency issues. As of now, the pizza's a delight and worth a visit if you live in New Jersey. The kitchen addition will add more nonpizza menu items to help take pressure off the oven duties; hopefully this diversification of resources won't dilute the quality of the pies. Thankfully, the attention to detail in food preparation and staff training gives me assurance that they'll stay on track.
*Oh my. Yes, I just did that, and there's plenty more coming out of the oven.