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Atlanta's Antico Pizza Napoletana: Something Lost, Something Gained
Antico Pizza Napoletana
1093 Hemphill Avenue. Atlanta, Georgia 30318 (map);404-724-2333; anticopizza.it
Pizza type: Neapolitan
Oven type: Wood-fired, Acunto
The Skinny: Destination-worthy Neapolitan pizza
Price: Margherita: $18; San Gennaro: $21
The first time I ever dined at Antico Pizza Napoletana was the night before it opened to the public in September 2009. Owner and big-time character Giovanni Di Palma excitedly showed a friend and I around the one-level unassuming brick building off Hemphill Avenue near Georgia Tech Campus. It was a spartan, warehouse-like space originally intended for take-out only with little seating as a result. Three imported Acunto ovens (Atlanta's first that started a subsequent wave of Acunto madness) were the centerpiece of the large back room flanked by walk-ins, boxes of San Marzano D.O.P. tomatoes, bags of 00 flour, and all the other usual pizza paraphernalia. While Di Palma's enthusiasm was infectious, our optimism was tempered with healthy skepticism because Neapolitan pizza was never something Atlanta excelled at producing consistently. At first bite, we knew Antico was special. How special, however, was a surprise to us all. All of us except Di Palma, who seemed to know he was on the verge of a massive success.
After just one week of business, Antico was a bona-fide cult-classic; an Atlanta institution. Diners tweeted and blogged their praises and stoked the fires of culinary obsession. The lines grew. The take-out only business model soon evolved into a casual, communal dining experience where patrons fought for the few tables Di Palma had added. More tables were installed; the best placed directly in front of the pizzaiolo spinning dough in the air and expertly poking, turning, and sashaying the pies in and out of the oven in sync to the blaring soundtrack of canned Italian opera classics.
The finished product was shuffled from the peel onto an aluminum cookie sheet lined with paper and placed rather unceremoniously in front of the diner with a roll of rough brown paper towels. And how were the pies? Transcendent. But has it held up?
The menu still only offers a handful of pizzas and calzones. No salads. No pastas. No antipasti. Just pizzas, calzones, drinks and a small selection of exceptional Italian sweets, including cannoli in various flavors with cracker crisp crusts.
One complaint people had with the original pies produced at Antico—often while comparing it to heavy hitter, Varasano's in the same breath—was that the crust was a smidge doughier than one would expect from a traditional Neapolitan pie. However, something has happened to change that. The crust is more relaxed and a little less lofty. Perhaps the result is due to the dough being kept at room temperature plus the intense Atlanta summer heat? Whatever the case, the crust is airy, tangy, crisp and blistered from a mere two minutes in the oven; full of the dough complexities one would expect from a great recipe, ingredients, and skilled dough maker. It is not without fault though. Since this is a Neapolitan-style pie (and the usual Neapolitan characteristics apply), if you don't devour your slices quickly, the pizza will sog up, which means taking this pizza home—as Di Palma had originally intended—is tricky unless you have a blazing pizza stone ready to revive it.
Antico's Pizza Margherita ($18) is an exercise is simplicity. A peppy and slightly sweet sauce is scantily smeared on so the pie doesn't buckle under its weight coupled with the gooey fresh bufala mozzarella. A few leaves of basil and a little drizzle of olive oil complete the picture. It is a full flavored and respectable version that holds its character even as it cools and softens.
The real star at Antico, however, is the San Gennaro ($21). It has the same base as the Margherita, plus the addition of sweet roasted cippolini onions, large hunks of spicy pork sausage rife with fennel seeds, and the ingredient that makes this pizza pop: the cherry-shaped sweet and spicy red peppers. Add some of the incredibly spicy long Calabrian chilies stored in oil at the condiment bar in front of the ovens and you've got an addictive mix of spice, tang, and fat. It's no wonder this pizza is a bestseller.
The vibe at Antico is the one thing that has changed dramatically in the three years since it first opened. Antico started as a pizza speakeasy, an after hours party, a secret place for folks to gather, nosh, wink, and nod. Now, it feels like a more polished joint where both tourists and locals mingle.There is a constant, almost comical, line of diners poised with iPhones and fancy cameras eager for a shot of the large kitchen staff efficiently churning out pizzas. Di Palma is the missing piece. He used to be in the back all the time, schmoozing and injecting the space with his manic energy, personality, and swagger. These days, he's not as around as much. Perhaps he is driving around town in the Maserati that appeared after his sweet deal to expand Antico globally. Perhaps he is working on new business ventures. Or, maybe he's in early retirement. Whatever the reason, his absence is palpable. Antico pizzas remain special, but Antico, the restaurant, no longer feels special.