Dining: Pizza for the Particular
I went looking for pizzas that would make the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana happy.
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.
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.
Pasta & Basta
Restaurant Row, 500 Ala Moana Blvd. // 523-9999 // Lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner Tuesday to Saturday 5 to 9 p.m. // Validated parking, major credit cards // www.pastabastadonato.com
A near classic pizza Margherita can be found at Donato Loperfido’s mainly takeout space in Restaurant Row. For $10, you get a 12-inch, hand-tossed pie, crispy, even scorched around the edges for extra flavor, but still foldable. There’s plenty of bubbly brown cheese and fresh basil, but the revelation here is the tomato sauce, which was so good I wandered into the kitchen and talked to the young chef, who told me that it was very simple, fresh tomatoes, oregano, salt, pepper, oil and garlic, cooked down slowly. The key was that he made it daily.
Owner Loperfido is the only person I have ever seen make fresh mozzarella. However, the young chef admitted, the cheese on this Margherita was shredded mozzarella from Costco. That figures, it’s a $10 pie. And it’s actually good, so I wasn’t complaining.
There’s wine by the glass. The natural match seems to be a red, but even though I’ve tried almost everything, with varying results, I think with pizza you might try a white, something like the oak-aged Aldo Polencic pinot bianco that’s $8 a glass here.
Formaggio Wine Bar
Market City, 2919 Kapiolani Blvd. // 739-7719 // Monday and Tuesday, 5:30 to 11 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. (Kitchen closes one hour before closing.) // Free parking, major credit cards // www.formaggio808.com
In addition to serving 11,205 glasses of wine a month, Formaggio Wine Bar does food, including some genuine small pizzas on a crunchy cracker crust that somehow remains foldable.
The Margherita ($9.50) is reasonably classic, with shredded mozzarella instead of fresh, and large slices of tomato with a professional-looking basil chiffonade.
The disappointment was the pizza puttanesca ($11.50). Like the pizza itself, puttanesca sauce originated in Naples, where it’s named in honor of the city’s prostitutes. Puttanesca is a variation on Mama’s basic tomato sauce, tarted up with anchovies, garlic, red pepper and capers.
By definition, a puttanesca shouldn’t be dull. The one on Formaggio’s pizza certainly is. We were asked if we wanted anchovies. It wouldn’t be puttanesca without them. But these were lazily laid whole on top. Actually, the anchovies are supposed to almost literally dissolve in the sauce. Plus, there was no fire, not much garlic, no capers—and those canned olive slices, could someone ban them?
The pizza of choice here is the primavera ($11.50). Rather than just sprinkle the top of a pizza with raw veggie slices, Formaggio uses the ingredients for its signature vegetable Napoleon—portobello mushrooms, eggplant, zucchini, roasted peppers, caramelized onions, grilled so they are soft, flavorable and toothsome, and then dotted with a creamy white goat cheese. Eat your veggies.
Once again, I thought the otherwise delicious Pontete Bordeaux that my friends were drinking was too much for pizza. Formaggio has an entirely drinkable Adami prosecco, which makes you feel you’re having Champagne and pizza, and that’s living.
Romano’s Macaroni Grill
Ala Moana Center, 1450 Ala Moana Blvd. // 356-8300 // Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. // Free parking, major credit cards // www.macaronigrill.com
People roll their eyes at this Ala Moana eatery because it’s a chain. But its pizza Margherita ($10.99) is reasonably classic, perhaps not the best crust I’d eaten all month, but tomato sauce, melted mozzarella, basil and diced tomatoes. The latter makes sense because the usual tomato slices tend to slide off the pizza.
We were eating at the spacious marble bar. The bartender suggested the Sicilian pizza ($12.99). In Italy, Sicilian pizza is essentially foccacia. In New York, it’s thick-crusted, cut into squares and generally yucky.
This was none of the above, just a classic crust and sauce, topped with sweet Italian sausage, pepperoni, fontina and mozzarella—and worth eating, enough spice in the sauce, great pepperoni, with a little kick from the fontina.
With both pizzas, the menu recommended the house Chianti, which isn’t a Chianti at all, since it’s made in California by a conglomerate named Constellation Wines. But it’s cheap, drinkable, food-friendly and comes in a generous tumbler like you were an old Italian guy playing bocce ball on Sunday in San Francisco’s North Beach.
Alas, it was lunchtime, so instead we let the bartender whip us up Italian sodas—the pomegranate is tart, refreshing, and the vanilla reminds you of New York egg creams.
Say what you will, Romano’s puts out a decent pizza.
35 N. Hotel St. // 537-3535 // Monday through Friday 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., Saturday 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. // Street parking (good luck), major credit cards // www.bar35hawaii.com
Bar 35 has become a hip hangout—even though the entire clientele, me included, looks awfully straight.
It’s not a great bar; only George Seabold (he’s the bartender who’s not one of the young women with tattoos) can mix a reliable cocktail. Still, it’s dark and loud, and the only thing to eat is pizza.
Thank heavens, it’s great pizza, created by Tuscany-born chef Francesco Valentini. Valentini’s crusts are Roman—oblong, served on rectangular wooden paddles. But his pizzas are also Californian, in the sense that Alice Waters of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse first started topping pizzas with almost anything she felt like, a trend that was picked up by Wolfgang Puck and then by the two lawyers who started California Pizza Kitchen.
Valentini calls his, “fusion” pizzas, though his “Italian Perdition” ($12) is reasonably classic: fennel-heavy Italian sausage, anchovies, San Marzano tomato sauce and melted mozzarella—all on a nicely irregular crust, edges burned brown by the brick electric oven. “Good as this is,” said my friend, “the crust is the best part.”
Valentini went wild on his other recipes. I was sad to see eliminated from the menu the “Black Sea” pizza, topped with seafood, the crust dyed black with squid ink. “Local people weren’t ready for black pizza,” says Valentini.
Among the pizzas nouveau, we contented ourselves with “Smokey Heaven” ($12), with—heresy!—cream cheese. But the cream cheese is saved from insipidity by smoked salmon, red onion and the blue cheesy bite of Gorgonzola. Don’t tell the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, but this was one of the most interesting pizzas I encountered all month.
Valentini keeps threatening to open his own pizza place with a wood-burning oven. Please.
Sergio’s Italian Restaurant
Hee Hing Plaza, 449 Kapahulu Ave. // 737-4461 // Dinner nightly 5 to 9:30 p.m. // Free and valet parking // www.sergioshonolulu.com
“Where are you taking me to dinner?” said my most particular friend. “Pizza,” I said.
She gave me a fierce eye. “I expect a decent dinner,” she said, and steered me to Sergio’s, the less-expensive, more family-friendly sister of the Hilton restaurant, recently opened in the old Sam Choy Kapahulu location.
It hardly looks like a place to eat pizza. As I looked over the menu—Ossobuco alla Milanese, Pollo alla Romagnolla—I was sad I was on a mission.
Then chef Alfredo Lee sent to all the tables in the dining room a slice of his Pizza Margherita, perfect crust, lively with fresh tomato and a knot of fresh basil. Maybe pizza wouldn’t be too bad.
Since this was a full-on restaurant, we started with salads. I wanted Lee’s version of Caprese. “No, I’m ordering that, try something else, I’ll share,” said my friend.
I had the deconstructed pear salad, one of those standard cheese-fruit-nut-greens combos, this one with dabs of Gorgonzola, Nalo greens, candied walnuts, and—the best touch—slices of pear that had been grilled before being fanned out on the plate.
All this paled beside the Caprese—not the usual slices of tomato and mozzarella, but instead a giant egg of Buffalo mozzarella stuffed with ricotta and mascarpone cheeses, surrounded by paper-thin roasted eggplant slices, roasted peppers and local tomatoes, the plate squiggled with basil-infused oil and roasted bell pepper sauce.
Here are some things John Heckathorn had to say in past months. Visit our Dining page to read more reviews!
• Taormina Sicilian Cuisine
Waikiki Beach Walk,
Ala Moana Shopping Center,
1450 Ala Moana Blvd.,
It’s often hard to find room for dessert, notes Heckathorn. But at Longhi’s, it’s well worth the splurge. He recommends sharing the Caramel Knowledge with two or three friends. It’s three scoops of vanilla ice cream, “slathered in housemade caramel sauce, sprinkled with macadamia nuts, and surrounded by a vast portion of fresh fruits in season.” You can also have this monstrous dessert topped off with some housemade whipped cream.
Reviewed in our October 2008 issue.
I waved my fork in its direction, since it was disappearing all too quickly. “Oh,” she said, finally, “I forgot I said I’d share it with you.” From my meager forkfuls, I would say it was worth a return to Sergio’s.
Next up: two pizzas, neither classics since we already sampled the Margherita.
The proscuitto e rucola ($14) was round, with brown bubbles on the edge of the hand-thrown crust. It was a tomato-sauceless pizza, getting its pow instead from melted mozzarella, salty, meaty proscuitto and generous shavings of Parmesan. Then it was topped with the nutty, green chill of rucola, which is what the Italians call arugula. The combination of flavors, the contrast of temperatures and textures, the rich flavor of the crust itself—all added up to serious food.
And that was before I tasted the schiacciatina con patate ($12). This wasn’t quite a schiacciatina, which is one of those ubiquitous Mediterranean flatbreads. Instead, it was an oval pizza with paper-thin Yukon gold potatoes and sweet Maui onions. It was topped with large doses of mozzarella and fontina cheeses, and—this was my favorite part—leaves of sage, crisped in butter. A sage leaf is fairly intense to eat on its own, but in the context of this pizza, it adds a welcome peppery, concentrated herbal zing.
To cap things off, I had my favorite Italian dessert, an afogado, which is nothing more than gelato topped with a shot of espresso, hot, cold, bitter, sweet, all at once. My friend ordered lemon-thyme and lilikoi sorbets.
A fabulous dinner, though, fair warning, the pizzas may be pizza-priced, but the each salad costs almost as much as a pizza, as does the Tormaresca Neprica, the rustic Southern Italian red wine we drank with dinner. It’s a good wine, given a 90 by Wine Enthusiast, but at Sergio’s it runs a heftily marked-up $10 a glass.
We spent the most here, but we’d had a full dinner and walked out happy.
John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.
Editor’s Note: For a chance to win a pizza from Romano’s Macaroni Grill, visit our March Letters page for more info.