Atlanta: Fiery Times (and Pizzas) at Fuoco di Napoli
Fuoco di Napoli
30 Pharr Road, Atlanta, GA 30305 (map); 404-781-0707; fuocodinapoli.com
Pizza type: Neapolitan
Oven type: Wood-fired brick
The Skinny: Look past the recent headline making drama and you'll find a pizzeria turning out primo Neapolitan pies in Buckhead.
Price: Regina Margherita, $9 (lunch special w/salad); Fuoco di Napoli, $17
Days of Our Lives. All My Children. And now... Fuoco di Napoli. Yes, this Buckhead pizzeria has been the star of its own soap opera within the Atlanta restaurant scene since its opening in December. Lawsuits, arrests, allegations of stolen trade secrets, even a missing pizzaiolo are all juicy elements of the ongoing drama. But what about the pies behind the headlines? Are they worth all the brouhaha? Personally, I found the exceptional product at Fuoco to be plenty newsworthy all on its own.
This is a pizza blog and not a police blotter, but it's impossible (irresponsible, even) to talk about Fuoco di Napoli right now without at least acknowledging the reasons it's making news these days. Jon Watson of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Brad Kaplan of Creative Loafing, and Tomorrow's News Today have sorted through the sordid details in their writings recently, but here's the nutshell version as I understand it.
Fuoco di Napoli was started by Dino McDowell, who had previously worked across town at Antico Pizza Napoletana. In addition, local pizzaiolo Enrico Liberato—himself an ex-Antico employee—also joined the Fuoco staff. Liberato, a journeyman with stints in the kitchens of at least three other local pizzerias, is already out at Fuoco. After suddenly turning up conspicuously absent from the Fuoco oven, it was learned that he had been arrested after an incident involving aggravated assault, a knife, marijuana, and an immigration charge.
Even more troubling, Antico now claims that Fuoco stole everything from original recipes to their style of décor from Antico, and that Fuoco management even went so far as to tell patrons that they were an official Antico affiliate. Fuoco prez Dino McDowell and his wife Lori (co-owner) declined to comment, stating that their attorney would address these matters in court. (Ed. note: See the Comments section below for an update on two of these points.)
I had planned to visit Fuoco di Napoli for some time and had gone so far as to finalize a lunch date... and then the story of Antico's lawsuit exploded in the local paper three days later. Unsure of how a dude with a camera, a notepad, and a list of pizzamaking questions would be received in light of this recent pub, I visited Fuoco anyway.
What I found when I walked in was an impressive oven—built from over 1,300 firebricks (by Liberato!) and visible from every seat in the house‐with a rolling inferno inside. Long communal tables dominate the space, with hand-decorated peels and poster-sized pie pics lining the walls. The menu is streamlined, with just seven pizzas to choose from. I ordered the two most popular: the Regina Margherita and the flagship Fuoco di Napoli. (Gamblers may be interested in the Pizza Sorpresa, the "Pizza Surprise" that has the kitchen adding whatever happens to be handy, with no pre-bake input requested and no post-bake recourse allowed.)
The Regina Margherita is a thing of understated beauty. Like all of Fuoco's pies, it starts with Antimo Capuoto 00 flour and a quick hit of San Marzano sauce, which also features a noticeable amount of spice. A mixture of bufala and fior di latte mozzarella comes next, with basil leaves and a drizzle of olive oil rounding things out. After two and a half minutes in the oven's fire, it showed exceptional color. While fans of blackened blisters on the topside may be disappointed, the underside displayed distinct leopard spotting. No big air pockets in the rim, but a fair bubble structure inside the cornicione itself. Fuoco's standard pie is 16-inches, much bigger than many hardcore Neapolitans, but the Margherita is also available in a personal size, part of a with-salad lunch special that's just 9 bucks.
Fuoco di Napoli's namesake pie brings the heat for sure, with thick-cut spicy salami strips and whole Calabrian peppers. "Fire of Naples?" Hell, yes... but the burn was the good kind—encouraging a quicker-than-normal drink drain and then fading fast in time for the next slice. Fuoco's pies have a near-liquid center that droops and flops when you heft a piece, but the crust has a nice crispness to its outermost skin that gives way immediately to a pleasant yeasty chew. The FdN is the restaurant's priciest pie at $17, but a steal when you compare it to many other parlors' loaded-to-the-gills 16-inchers. This one's got first-class ingredients and a taste that few others can touch. It's unquestionably one of my favorite pies in town.
It's a shame that Fuoco di Napoli has become perhaps better known for the behind-the-scenes soap opera and legal back-and-forth than for the spectacular pies coming out of that brick oven. Here's hoping that the other stuff gets cleared up sooner rather than later so the Fuoco staff can concentrate fully on cranking out primo pies.
About the Author: Todd Brock lives the glamorous life of a stay-at-home freelance writer in the suburbs of Atlanta. Besides being paid to eat cheeseburgers for AHT and pizzas for Slice, he's written and produced over 1,000 hours of television and penned Building Chicken Coops for Dummies. When he grows up, he wants to be either the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys or the drummer for Hootie & the Blowfish. Or both.