Orange County, California: Pizza e Vino

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Pizzaphilia, the tenacious, gastronomic syndrome with which I've been afflicted for nearly my entire life, compelled me to drive down to Orange County one recent Saturday afternoon. I made this trip from LA knowing full well that I would likely encounter mind-numbing freeway traffic because I was craving a new pizza experience, and Pizza e Vino, only the second VPN-certified restaurant in Southern California, was calling me.

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[Photographs: L.A. Pizza Maven]

Regarding VPN, I feel strongly that their seal of approval does guarantee high quality in both the ingredients and the method of cooking pizza. Naturally, the quality of the final product depends on the integrity, passion, and the skills of the pizza-maker. Given my long history of ecstatic pizza experiences with VPN, primarily at Antica Pizzeria in Marina Del Rey, I eagerly anticipated this traffic-choked journey to Rancho Santa Margarita.

Pizze e Vino

31441 Santa Margarita Parkway, Suite M, Rancho Santa Margarita CA 92688 (map); 949-713-1500;
Pizza style: Neapolitan
Oven type: Wood-fired
The skinny: Despite observed consistency issues, this VPN-certified pizzeria shows potential

Pizzaioli at work.jpgWith the aid of my co-pilot and her Blackberry, we headed down the 405, to the 10, to the 5, to the 133, and some other freeway and, though we also had to drive on what may be California's only pay toll highway (don't ask me the number), we persevered and eventually pulled into the Mercado del Lago's spacious parking lot. Temporarily blinded by the late afternoon sun, I looked around in vain for the restaurant until I noticed a stairway in the distance. Soon my nose picked up a garlic scent in the summer wind and we descended the stairs, only to be transported away from the clutches of oppressive suburbia and into the warm embrace of an Italian piazza, replete with bubbling fountain, strolling couples in love and a sparkling lake in the distance.

OK, maybe it wasn't Napoli, but for the OC, the ambiance encouraged a real joie d'vivre.

So we strolled up to the restaurant and, lo and behold, we were told that our table would be ready in five minutes. There were a few tables outside and, upon entering I saw another dozen small, mostly occupied, dark wooden tables, a small bar and, the real object of our desire, a wood burning brick oven; its dancing orange and gold flames seemed to beckon us inside. I focused on the pizza-maker, who was rearranging the pies inside the oven's fiery mouth. As I sat down, the sound of Louis Prima filled the air while I eagerly watched the servers race by with what appeared to be very attractive pizza. Unfortunately, I knew from a lifetime of disappointments, that an attractive appearance does not a tasty pizza make.

We started out with salads; my house salad proved perfectly plentiful and satisfying, but my companion's artichoke and arugula drowned in its excessive lemon juice. The lack of complimentary bread and olive oil mildly surprised and disappointed me. Of course, we certainly didn't need more carbs, but with a beautiful WFO as the restaurant's centerpiece, a basket of fresh baked rustic, Italian bread seemed mandatory.

Now we prepared ourselves for the moment of truth—the vera pizza Napoletana, as it were. We were able to choose from roughly a dozen "rosso" and "bianco" pies, ranging in price from $10 to $18.

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The Stefano (above) arrived first and interestingly, the pizza was uncut, perhaps reflecting society's trend away from circumcision as much as traditional VPN custom. In fact, at Antica, the pies are cut into slices. A white pie, it sported wild Mexican shrimp, fresh mozzarella, and toasted garlic. The shrimp (with no traces of BP oil), were delicious, blending juicy smokiness and sea brine. The smooth mozz, made by local artisanal cheesemaker Gioia, and the potent garlic mingled swimmingly.

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The toppings put an ear-to-ear smile on my face, but it was the superbly baked crust that lifted this pie up to pizza excellence. A bit thicker and denser than the perfect crusts I regularly enjoy at Pepe Miele's Antica, this pie's foundation, as clearly displayed in the photos, was well blistered and charred, its texture slightly crisp on the outside yet still chewy inside.

The second pie, half Margherita–half salsiccia, was enlivened by a slightly sweet sauce derived from simple, imported, canned San Marzanos. Homemade crumbled fennel sausage and another nearly perfect crust and Pizza e Vino was batting a thousand.

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The "Funghi."

Unfortunately, the next two pies failed to maintain the culinary momentum. Both the "Funghi" and the Calabrese suffered from undercooked crusts. Furthermore, I'm no fungal expert, but,to me, the crimini 'shrooms tasted no better than the common canned variety.

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The "Calabrese."

The sausage on the Calabrese tasted spicy and juicy but ultimately, both these pies' weak crusts caused the evening to end on a decidedly low note.

My experience at Pizza e Vino perfectly illustrates the difficulty in identifying an excellent pizza merely from the visuals. These pies all enticed my visual appetite, but two struck out when it came to quality of execution. While a .500 batting average would be unprecedented in the baseball world, in a pizzeria, I expect a higher success rate. Perhaps the young pizza-maker here needs greater focus and commitment to the art of wood-fired-oven management.

Yet, in spite of the two disappointing pies, I would still endorse Pizza e Vino as a pizza destination, though the next time I'm there, I will be sure to mention my desire for a "well-done" crust.