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Atlanta: Tartufo Brings a Taste of Europe (and Africa) to Buckhead
3137 Piedmont Road, Atlanta, GA 30305 (Map); 404-806-9957; tartufopizza.com
Pizza type: Neapolitan
Oven type: Gas and wood
The Skinny: Real-deal pies in a very European setting
Price: Polpette, $21; Tartufo, $22; daily lunch special, $10
Few people would put Tunisia on a shortlist of global pizza hotspots. But its capital city of Tunis is actually closer to Naples than Genoa, Verona, and Milan. Yep, there it is, just a hop, skip and un salto across the Mediterranean... on the continent of Africa, of all places.
At 16, Mounir Barhoumi traveled from his Tunis home to visit an uncle in Naples. He did some time at a pizzeria there and learned the techniques he'd put into practice a few decades later in what would have probably seemed just as unlikely a location, Atlanta. (More specifically, the cosmo-cool enclave of Buckhead.) His word-of-mouth restaurant may not be as well known as Varasano's or as deafeningly hyped as Antico, but Tartufo Pizzeria is a more than worthy addition to the city's ever-expanding list of upscale pie shops... and, I daresay, better than most.
For the common man and casual fan, toppings are what make a pizza. (Hold your outrage, Slice'rs; we'll get nerdy in a sec.) Mounir (that's him in the blue T-shirt, working some dough at upper left) doesn't cut corners with the dozen or so offerings on Tartufo's menu. The imported prosciutto on the Parma is some of the best I've ever sampled. There's rock shrimp and top-shelf Italian tuna (for the Genova and Carthago, respectively) that honor his Mediterranean roots. Whatever he can import from Italy, he does... but the produce is 100% local. Like the heirloom cherry tomatoes on the Insalata Caprese. Ca-razy good.
But it was the Polpette that really spoke to me. The kitchen starts with San Marzano sauce and loads it up with roasted mushrooms, fresh mozzarella, and homemade meatballs made from Mounir's grandmother's recipe. A far cry from the dense, overly-packed slices (or halves) that dot many a meatball pie, these were loosely crumbled with a downright fluffy texture, thanks to the use of brioche in the mix. It's a fantastic pizza, and one I'll be eating again, even when Slice isn't picking up the tab.
At $21, it's pricey for a 14-incher, but this is Buckhead, so not out of line given the ZIP code. For the budget-minded, there's a lunch special: any ten-inch pie and a water or soda for an Alexander Hamilton.
The most popular pie on the menu is their namesake, the Tartufo. As you Italian-speakers have already deduced, truffle oil is the crowning ingredient here. I watched Mounir drizzle it over a just-from-the-oven pie smartly topped with caramelized onions and roasted shiitakes. Sometimes an overpowering ingredient, the truffle oil works here in moderation, its richness teaming up with the saltiness and earthiness already at play to perfectly complement the finishing fistful of arugula.
I've shied away from arugula-topped pies for a while; a recent one that was too heavy-handed tasted like salad on a crust, and I haven't been back since. But the Tartufo ($22) reminded me that the just-right proportion of bitter crunch can really sing.
For (us) true pizza fanatics, though, it's all about the dough... a sentiment that Mounir echoed verbatim several times during our chat. Tartufo's starts with Caputo flour and gets a rest of at least 18 hours. After it's stretched and worked into shape—a process Mounir likens to therapy—it's pushed into the Wood Stone oven. The oven uses a gas starter, with a target temp of 590 to 620°F . Seem a touch low for true Neapolitan style? Maybe. Sticks of oak and cherry are added sparingly, but Mounir admits that it's more about the smell of smoke and the spectacle of flame than using wood as true cooking fuel.
Sure, plenty of pizzerias crank it up to 800 degrees or more. The problem, as Mounir sees it, is that those extreme temps blister the outer rim before the center of the pie is even hot. Leave it in longer to cook the middle, and you burn the cornicione. Mounir likes a shade more doneness in the center, so he aims for a slightly lower baking temp and a cook time of about two minutes. The result is an undercarriage that isn't heavily spotted, but has light-tasting, chewy "bones" that even non-crust-fans will happily wolf down... and even request extra sauce for dipping.
There hasn't been anything at Tartufo that I didn't really, really enjoy. It feels like a neighborhood place, evidenced by the number of people I saw Mounir address by first name, always with a follow-up ask about the family. He's big on customer service, whether it's tweaking a dish to suit your taste or personally delivering a hot pie to one of the nearby luxury hotels in his eye-catching Fiat.
From the sparse and streamlined Euro-slick decor to the TVs streaming a midafternoon soccer match to the daily-made gelato to the friendly staff that welcomes you with an often-thick accent and a recommendation for something you didn't even know you were hungry for, everything about Tartufo says "the Old Country" to me.
Even if that country happens to be Tunisia.
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.