Don Antonio by Starita
102 West Paces Ferry Road, Suite E, Atlanta, GA 30305 (Map); 404-844-2879; donantoniopizza.com
Pizza type: Neapolitan
Oven type: Wood
The Skinny: A true taste of Naples from one of the true masters, maybe the best pizza in the city
Price: Montanara Starita, $13; Margherita with Salami, $15; Pistacchio e Salsiccia, $22
"So, what's your favorite pizza in Atlanta?"
It's a question I've gotten a thousand times. No surprise, given this job. But the shock was who was asking me this time, and how overwhelmingly intimidated I felt as my mind raced to come up with an answer.
I was alone at the bar with none other than Roberto Caporuscio, owner and chef of Don Antonio by Starita. I had been invited to stop by on a Sunday afternoon to talk pizza just a few days after I'd first sampled his pies at the newly opened Atlanta outpost. We had the place to ourselves, and I had come armed with a list of questions about his dough, his cheese, his menu, and his Buckhead restaurant—the third jewel in the Starita crown. But I was not prepared for him to start asking me about pizza.
New York diners and regular Slice readers are likely familiar with Caporuscio. But his is a new face on the Atlanta pizza scene, having taken over the former STG Trattoria space in late 2013. I liked STG quite a lot, but owner Brian Lewis had found Bocado still taking up most of his time and offered up the tucked-away-in-the-back-of-a-shopping-center space with those twin Acunto ovens to Caporuscio. Lewis still reportedly owns a small share of the newest Don Antonio by Starita, now with locations in Naples...New York...and Atlanta (?!?)
"So why Atlanta?" I asked. I mean, I love it here, but I'd never pretend to put our pizza culture on an equal plane with those other two cities. Roberto's answer floored me.
"It reminded me of Pittsburgh."
After training under Antonio Starita in Naples, Roberto started his first successful pie joint in Pittsburgh. Now, after building New York's Keste into a world-class destination and following it up with Midtown's Don Antonio by Starita—named one of the 25 "Best Pizza Places in the US" by Food & Wine—Caporuscio found that Atlanta's fast growth, hilly topography, and friendly people reminded him of the Steel City. So there you go; Don Antonio by Starita could have ended up in Pittsburgh...if only they'd been more like Pittsburgh, I guess.
Their loss is our gain. Atlanta pizza fans may not be fully ready for a sometimes-dizzying menu featuring sixty pizza choices, but that's what Caporuscio offers. That photo shows just a small sampling of the exhaustive menu. By the way, Caporuscio took that photo himself at a recent event in the New York restaurant. Farmer, cheesemaker, successful restaurateur, US president of the APN, surefire first-ballot Pizza Hall of Famer, genuinely gracious guy...and kick-ass photographer to boot. Of course. Overachiever.
Navigating your way through the massive menu can seem like homework at first, with all-Italian pie names forcing you to do some more-than-light reading just to figure out what you want to eat.
So I'll save you some effort and tell you that you absolutely, positively want to start with this: The Montanara Starita ($13) is the restaurant's signature menu item. And while it's been praised aplenty here at Slice, there was no way I was passing up my first fried pizza. The dough is fried in its own pan with just a bit of oil until it's puffy and crisp on the outside. Then it's topped with Starita's tomato sauce, smoked buffalo mozzarella, and basil, and baked in the wood-fired oven. The result is a light, wonderfully smoky, not-in-the-least-bit-greasy treat that is without question one of the ten best things I've ever put in my mouth.
Don Antonio by Starita is (as far as Roberto and I could figure during our chat) the only place in Atlanta doing a fried pizza, but I'm guessing it won't be for long based on how magical this is. Caporuscio told me that while fried pizza is a relatively new sensation for American foodies, it's the kind of pizza he grew up on, when his mother would fry extra dough as a way to extend leftovers. It's still a family affair; Roberto's daughter Giorgia—who became the youngest woman ever to win a prestigious contest in Naples with it in 2012—has been installed as the Atlanta location's top pizzamaker.
Pizze Fritte, Pizze Bianche, Pizze Rosse, Pizze Speciale, Senza Glutine...there's a lot to choose from. No build-your-own option here; all the pies are chef-created combinations. "Too many toppings will destroy the dough and take too long to cook," Roberto told me. He encourages diners to try the pizzas the way they were designed to be. "You would never go into a sushi place and tell them how you want them to do it," he pointed out. Besides, with over sixty to choose from, there's sure to be something here to accommodate your taste.
The Margherita with Salami ($15) is just one of eleven (!!) Margherita varieties. Simpler pies like this one spotlight the three crucial components of every Don Antonio pizza. The mozz is made from cheese curd brought in from Green Bay, Wisconsin. Caporuscio told me it's the closest he's found to real Italian curd, and you can see it being made right there in the restaurant. (The smoked and buffalo mozz is imported from Italy.)
The exceptional sauce starts with Ciao canned peeled tomatoes (a variety grown from Roma seed) imported from the San Marzano area, with less water content than most... designed to minimize sogginess. They're crushed in an old-school food mill, and then a little bit of salt is added. That's it; that's all you need. Perfection.
Then there's the dough. Don Antonio by Starita may be putting out the finest pizza dough I've ever eaten. Caporuscio has shared his dough with Slice in the past; he says the higher humidity of the South does present an extra challenge. I wondered about the differences in water quality between Naples, New York, and Atlanta; Roberto told me Atlanta has "good" water, but that's not really a big deal. "The dough is very important. But," he reminded me, "we don't eat dough. We eat pizza."
What's far more important than the water is how the dough is handled. You won't see the pizzaioli tossing the dough at Don Antonio. After its 24- to 36-hour rest at room temp (refrigeration is only for cases of emergency), the dough is so soft that airborne acrobatics with it aren't necessary. "If you have to toss dough, it's too tough," Roberto told me. "They don't toss dough in Naples."
The key, he demonstrated, is a light touch. He asked me to hold out my hand, palm side down. Then he gently pressed his fingertips to the back of my hand as if he were a nurse, blotting away at a delicate wound. "This is how hard we touch the dough to stretch it." Incredible... and a good lesson learned for my next at-home pizza party.
The other pie I tried on my first Starita visit was the Pistacchio e Salsiccia ($22), where finely crumbled sausage and puddles of the house mozz dot a base of fresh pistachio pesto. Not as aggressively flavored as I might have hoped, but it's still a tasty pie that I'd be happy to try again; it's one of the restaurant's best sellers.
Your best bet might be to go with a large group, so that everyone at the table can order something different and share. That is, after all, the whole point of pizza, Roberto told me. "Pizza is a social food. It's earthy, simple. The richest people and the poorest people can sit down and share a pizza together. In this country, you call a friend and say, 'Let's go get a drink.' In Italy, we say, 'Let's get a pizza.'"
With sixty-some varieties—and a few wild toppings among them—you can catch up with A LOT of friends. The cream of walnut pie is one of Roberto's faves, and the butternut squash- and zucchini-topped Pizza del Papa was created for the Pope! Gluten-free friends will appreciate over a dozen choices made in a separate room and even cooked in their own oven to avoid any chance of cross-contamination. Yes, there's plenty I'm eager to go back for, but every single thing I ate at Don Antonio by Starita was well worth sharing with someone you care about.
Which brings me back to the question that I was asked during the interview I was supposedly conducting. Having Roberto Caporuscio ask you about YOUR favorite pizza is a little like Paul McCartney asking to see what's on your iPod or Stephen King wanting to know what you're reading these days. I hemmed and hawed for a minute, for fear of giving him a bad recommendation, and I finally came up with an out-in-the-suburbs spot that I sincerely hope he tries on his next trip to town (he's currently in Atlanta about two days each week).
But after I thanked Roberto and we parted ways, I thought about it some more as I drove away from Don Antonio by Starita. MY favorite pizza in Atlanta? Not to be a brown-noser, but actually...I think I just found it.