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Dining: Pizza for the Particular

I went looking for pizzas that would make the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana happy.


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Named for a 19th-century queen, a Margherita pizza is authentic Italian cuisine, its red tomatoes, white mozzarella and green basil echoing the colors of the Italian flag. Here in a near classic rendition by J.J. Dolan’s.

Photo: Olivier Koning

In a world where pizza can be almost anything from barbecued chicken to “Hawaiian” pineapple and ham, Italy is trying to establish by law the definition of “a traditional Italian pizza.”

The traditional Italian pizza evolved from the many ancient Mediterranean flatbreads—but not until the 18th century, when the population of Naples, Italy, finally realized that the tomatoes brought over from the New World weren’t poisonous.

To be the real deal, insists the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, a pizza has to be made by hand of high-protein Italian flour, topped with genuine San Marzano tomato sauce and fresh buffalo mozzarella, baked in a wood-fired oven.

Forget pepperoni. You can have pizza marinara (tomato sauce, garlic, oregano and extra-virgin olive oil), or pizza Margherita, named in honor of Queen Margherita, who came to Naples on vacation in 1889 and, of course, sent out for a pizza. The chef added something special: buffalo mozzarella, fresh tomatoes and basil.

Now, tradition is one thing and being stuck in the past is another. I am not one of those who believe that food, to be good, has to be “authentic,” as if recipes were once perfect and are fixed in time forever. If food didn’t evolve, nobody would have invented the 18th-century Italian pizza in the first place. We’d still be stuck with ancient flatbreads, made with spelt and maybe some salt.

On the other hand, I am fond of pizza that at least nods to tradition, a hand-formed thin crust, quality toppings, the kind of pizza you find in restaurants and better drinking establishments. That’s where I went pizza hunting this month.

J.J. Dolan's
1147 Bethel St.  // 537-4992  // Monday to Friday 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., Saturday 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.  // Street parking (good luck), major credit cards // www.jjdolans.com

The new J.J. Dolan’s has become an instant institution, perhaps because the partners at the Chinatown watering hole already had a following—Danny Dolan was manager at O’Toole’s and J.J. Niebuhr used to make pizza Friday nights at Murphy’s.

Niebuhr’s a Jersey boy, and New Jersey (OK, maybe New York as well) is the home of American-Italian food. I learned to love pizza in Jersey. The crust on a Jersey pizza is thin, but pliable enough to fold, and tasty in its own right.

There’s thin-crust pizza in California, sure, but if you hold a slice of West Coast pizza, it sticks out flat—as rigid a piece of corrugated paper and just as delicious.

On the East Coast, traditional Italian pizzas evolved—they got bigger, cooked in gas ovens, served on metal pans, with a bigger variety of toppings. But Niebuhr makes a Margherita—sauce, fresh mozzarella (cow’s milk, not buffalo’s), tomatoes and basil. It’s got life, freshness, flavor. Of course, it’s not entirely traditional. He adds some whole-milk mozzarella. “People gotta have cheese,” he says.

Unlike the traditional recipe, but like every East Coast pizzeria, Niebuhr adds oil to his high-protein flour dough. The oil adds flavor. And, if you ask me, real pizza leaves a little grease mark when you pick it up from a paper plate.

Niebuhr makes some totally American inventions, including an excellent spinach and garlic pie. His signature is probably his “Giacomo”—sausage, pepperoni, salami and olives—which would be perfect if he’d just upgrade from canned ripe olive slices.

Still, start with the Margherita, which costs $16 and generously feeds two, maybe three. The queen would be proud.

Most people seem to drink beer here. “Cheap beer and pizza, it’s a recession buster,” says Niebuhr. But while you’re at it, get Dolan to make you a classic martini or a bourbon old fashioned. The man can mix drinks.


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