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Atlanta: Pizzeria Vesuvius Has Some Secrets... and Spectacular Pies

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[Photographs: Todd Brock]

Pizzeria Vesuvius

327 Edgewood Avenue, Atlanta, GA 30312 (map); 404-343-4404; pizzeriavesuvius.com
Pizza type: NY style or Neapolitan style
Oven type: Wood
The Skinny: Cool dive serves up dynamite pizzas and boasts a speakeasy bar behind a secret bookcase door
Price: Pepper & Sausage, $17; Kilimanjaro, $16

Alex Friedman didn't necessarily set out to get in the pizza business. He and his two partners were doing fine with P'cheen International Bistro & Pub and the building of Bone Lick BBQ—both buzzworthy adds to the city's foodscape—when Pizzeria Vesuvius became available. Vesuvius had started strong in Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward, but some personnel changes resulted in subpar pies and soured the faithful fans in a hurry. "You can look at the Yelp reviews by date and actually see when it happened," Friedman told me.

The trio had been wanting to open a restaurant on Edgewood Avenue, to capitalize on a planned streetcar line; here was an established pizzeria with a used-to-be-loyal clientele, a wood-burning Modena oven, and a front door just steps away from one of the line's stops. So they've brought back the killer pizzas (and then some) and added loads of cool factor—including a few deep, dark secrets—to make Pizzeria Vesuvius a must on a tour of the city's primo pie shops.

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If Vesuvius looks like a hole in the wall, that's partially the point. It's a perfect fit with the neighborhood: historic and rough around the edges, but packed with character and hipster charm inside, with much of what makes it so special waiting to be discovered. (It's also one of the darkest restaurants I've ever been in, only adding to the mystery.) The white oak-fired oven is right up front, across from a chalkboard menu that hints at the restaurant's split personality.

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Friedman kept several of the original Vesuvius' faves, but branched out, too. He wanted to offer delivery, and since Neapolitan crusts don't travel well, a New York style was added and new pies created to suit the thicker, breadier dough. The kitchen does construct two entirely different crusts, depending on the pie, and while Alex won't divulge the recipes, he confided that "filtered water is the key" to both.

The various combinations of toppings have been tested and paired with a crust for maximum flavor, but Friedman ultimately lets his customers mix it up at will: Neapolitan ingredients on a New York style, vice versa, and a "Choose Your Own Adventure" option with a list of five sauces and almost thirty toppings.

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For this visit, I selected one pie off each half of the menu. My 16-inch Pepper & Sausage NY style ($17) boasted long strips of red and green peppers, accented with small crumbles of housemade sausage, all on San Marzano sauce and held together with a custom cheese blend.

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The undercarriage sported some decent char spots, with a crust that was chewy and dense without ever being thick or doughy. I'm not a green pepper fan, but I loved the Christmas-color combo here, with the freshness of the locally-grown bells clearly evident.

The real star of this show, though, was the expertly-seasoned sausage, some of the best I've ever had. Friedman and his compatriots know meat; Bone Lick BBQ started as a seasonal offering on Mondays at P'cheen. In a recent survey, this pop-up effort was good enough to beat out every other full-time BBQ restaurant in the city... and ranked #4 statewide.

Bone Lick is now its own brick-and-mortar entity in Westside, and the guys take full advantage of the facilities at all three restaurants for their curing: the meats are butchered and salted at Bone Lick before they're sent to P'cheen. After they're hung there to air dry, they're sliced and trucked over to Vesuvius to go on the pizzas.

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There's a lot of Bone Lick influence on the Vesuvius menu, including that kitchen's BBQ sauce and pulled pork (and even fried collards) as toppings. But my favorite example of everything coming together is the 14-inch Kilimanjaro ($16). San Marzano sauce is dressed with that same sausage, pepperoni, bacon, Bone Lick's ham, and chopped pepperoncinis. The meats are deftly seasoned and delicately smoked, proportioned so that each one gets its own moment in the spotlight from bite to bite, with no one taste drowning out the others.

It's a phenomenal pie that I'd place among my favorites in town, and one I will absolutely get again... provided I don't go rogue and get the St. Helens or Funghi that I was also eyeballing.

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Yes, there's plenty to explore at Pizzeria Vesuvius... which leads me to the thing that's getting the most press since this summer's reopening. In the restaurant's back hallway, you may notice a tall bookcase against the wall. That bookcase is actually a door (pull the one book that's sticking out slightly) which leads to a full-blown speakeasy. (There's also a super-double-secret music room that's even harder to find.) No windows, no doors, no signage. Just a hush-hush candlelight bar steeped in a Roaring Twenties theme, right down to black-and-white films projected on the exposed brick walls and an entire list of custom boilermakers and moonshines.

It's a fun aside that does brisk business, even on a Thursday night, but don't make the mistake of letting the cloak-and-dagger watering hole outshine the simply stellar pizzas you have to walk past to get there... from a guy who—remember—never meant to get into pizzas.

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.

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