Newton, Massachusetts: Maria di Napoli Ristorante

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[Photos: Andrew Janjigian]

Maria di Napoli Ristorante

344 Watertown Street, Newton, MA (map); 617-527-2181
Pizza style: Neapolitan-American/Thin-Crust
Oven type: Gas
Notes: Wine and beer
Price: 16" pizzas, $9.75-$16.00

Maria di Napoli Ristorante in Newton, MA, is an unassuming spot in the sleepy Italian-American neighborhood of Nonantum, a few miles outside of Boston. It's a friendly, family-run business, with Naples-born Maria Cerqua in the kitchen and her husband Ruggiero and son Roger manning the front of the house.

The pizza at Maria di Napoli Ristorante isn't (strictly speaking) Neapolitan, but it clearly bears the imprint of Cerqua's Neapolitan heritage. The restaurant lacks the ultra-hot wood-fired ovens that are typical of a true Neapolitan pizzeria; instead, the pies are cooked in a standard gas-fired deck oven. And the pies at Maria di Napoli Ristorante are both larger in width and thinner-crusted than a true Neapolitan.

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But the brightly-flavored, uncooked crushed plum tomato based sauce, simple, sparingly-applied toppings, and a crust with ultra-tender crumb (especially at the nicely-puffed cornicione) all shout Neapolitan just the same. While these pies might not be 100% Neapolitan, they are closer in spirit to Naples than most of the pizzas that we now consider Neapolitan-American.

I wasn't able to confirm whether Maria di Napoli Ristorante uses a soft, finely-ground Italian "00" flour to make their pizzas, but it seems likely, given these pies' silken, fine crumb and crisp but not chewy exteriors. It can be tricky to get a tender, crisp pie using 00 flour in the relative cool of a conventional oven; without temperatures near 1000 degrees, pizzas made with these low-protein flours tend to toughen up before they turn crisp. Yet somehow, miraculously, Cerqua manages to conjure a light, airy pie without the benefit of wood.

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Similarly, the pizzas still somehow manage to find a healthy amount of char on their backsides.

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The first of the pies we had—sausage and roasted red peppers—was a little paler and less crisp on its underside than the other two, but as we were the first customers of the evening, it was clear that the oven hadn't yet come to temperature. The sausage and peppers themselves were flavorful and clearly of good quality, if not particularly memorable.

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As you'd expect, though, it's the simpler, more traditionally-dressed pies that stand out at Maria di Napoli Ristorante. The Margherita, topped with aged mozzarella, dried oregano, and a few torn basil leaves, was delicious. The cheese was applied sparingly, letting the bright, tart notes of the tomato and the aromatic flavors of the herbs sing out.

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And the Marinara, topped with crushed tomatoes, a generous smattering of dried oregano, and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, was wonderful as well. I enjoy a pie with a healthy amount of bold-flavored toppings as much as the next guy, but this pie reminded me once again of the virtues of simplicity. This is pizza stripped to its essentials, perfectly executed.

Maria di Napoli Ristorante isn't a flashy affair. The decor is simple and understated, the food unostentatious. The experience is less of a night out on the town than a dinner at the home of your Neapolitan-born grandmother, one who just so happens to have the skills of a master pizzaiolo. I'm not Italian myself, and don't have an Italian grandmother, skilled or otherwise, so I'm glad to know Maria di Napoli Ristorante is just a short ride away.

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