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Prato: Serious Neapolitan Pizza In Winter Park, FL

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Prato

124 N Park Ave Winter Park, FL 32789 (map) 407-262-0050; prato-wp.com
Pizza style: Neapolitan
Oven type: Wood-fired covered brick
The skinny: Tasty Neapolitan pies, excellent crust, tiny tables
Price: $15 each

I didn't go to Florida looking for good pizza, but oddly (or is it serendipitously) enough, good pizza always seems to find me. It's a curse and a blessing. A blessing because, well, it's good pizza—one of the greatest foods known to man. A curse because I am forced to eat it everywhere I go. There are far worse curses to be burdened with, I suppose.

Winter Park is a resort-y suburb of Orlando. One of the first real communities designed to be livable from the ground up, it's where locals who want to get away from the Mickey Mouse brigade head to to buy spices, play in the park, chat over cocktails, or poke through the largest Tiffany glass collection on the planet. Because it's a planned city and not a product of urban sprawl or theme park development, there's a real neighborhood and community feel to it. The kind that makes you want to sit down by the park for a cold beer and a slice of pizza.

I walked into Prato, a modern Italian trattoria by the park, sure that I could at least get the former. But my hopes for the latter took a big plunge when our waitress proudly proclaimed "we bake our pizzas all the way at 500 degrees in a brick oven imported from Tuscany."

"500°," "brick oven," and "Tuscany" are not three words that you generally want to hear consecutively when ordering pizza.

So when I saw a pie whisked past me to another table, bearing a blistered crust and creamy blobs of what looked like real mozzarella, I immediately shot out of my chair. I followed the wake of steam it left behind, my nose gently sniffing the air like a bloodhound hot on the trail of fennel-specked Calabrian sausage and barnyardy Caciocavallo cheese, until I saw the oven, a wood fire roaring along one side, a shallow haze of smoke filling its upper cavity.

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I made eye contact with the man slinging the pies.

There's a sort of unspoken recognition that takes place when two pizza obsessives meet in the wild. The eyebrow equivalent of a human handshake or a canine sniff-around. In the two seconds we looked at each other, he told me everything I needed to know.

No, our oven is not at 500°F. I just took its temperature with my infrared thermometer and clocked it in at a floor temperature of 800°F and a dome temperature pushing 900°F. Each pizza cooks in 90 seconds. My pies, which are made from an overnight fermented dough, are anointed with fresh imported tomato passata, along with fior di latte made locally specifically for us and delivered daily. My Parmigiano-Reggiano is grated, and my olive oil is extra virgin. I don't always use basil, but when I do, it is fresh.

It's also possible he told me all of this from his mouth. My notes are a little hazy on that point.

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What I'm not hazy on is the quality of that pizza. A sublimely tender-crisp crust with just the barest hint of a crackly shell on its underbelly. Well seasoned, flavorful, and a pleasure to tear off and chew. Tomato as bright and fresh as you can hope for, along with creamy, milky mozzarella, bolstered with a grating of nutty Parmigiano. I would have preferred to have had the basil applied pre-bake so that its aroma would permeate the pie without marring its texture with leafiness, but there's no faulting the generous finishing drizzle of olive oil.

Like all great classic Neapolitan pies, this is one you have to eat quick. The moment it's sliced, the undercarriage starts to get wet (and some would argue that a Neapolitan pie should arrive at the table unsliced for this very reason). This is a fork-and-knife kind of pizza, no question.

I'd always imagined some sort of inverse Disney World-rule for pizza—the density of quality pizza joints in a given area is inversely proportional to the square of that area's distance from the closest Disney theme park. I'm glad that Prato was here to prove me quite wrong on that one.

The advice to glean here? Always double check your server's facts, especially when good pizza is on the line.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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