Pizza has never gone out of favor with the American public, but in the past few years, the country has fallen in love with pizza all over again. The key word is, as with so many foods these days, "artisanal." Think small-scale production, fresh ingredients, chefs who really know what they're doing.
Pizza is one of those foods, like burgers, that elicits passionate responses among even casual eaters. Each style has its devout partisans - minimalist cracker-thin crust, fold-in-half New York style, deep dish, California...a food anthropologist could probably take regional styles down to the level of micro-neighborhoods.
At this culinary moment, more important than the ascendance of any one pizza style is that quality has improved. Free delivery used to be enough to sell a pizza, but today the ingredients are more carefully scrutinized. What goes into the sauce, where is the mozzarella sourced, are the toppings fresh and local? What kind of an olive is that? Sopressata and guanciale often replace pepperoni.
Nationally, Neapolitan pizza is having its day in the sun. Traditional Neapolitan pies are made in a wood-fired oven and baked very quickly at high temps; they have a thin but not cracker-crisp crust. There are key buzzwords: mozzarella di bufala, San Marzano tomatoes. The pies are simpler; the fresh tastes stand out.
The pizza place that happens to be closest to your house will do for slumber parties and playoff-watching sessions. But here are a handful of local spots where pairing a pie with a craft beer or a good glass of wine makes it a grownup's night out. It's a long way from the old player piano vibe at Shakey's.
Cafe Porta Alba
This was the pie that felt the most like the ingredients had just migrated to the top of the crust directly from a garden. And that was a pizza ordered at the tail-end of February. The sauce is made from San Marzano tomatoes and little else, and has a warm, simple, direct tomato flavor and a most subtle tang. The cornicione, the part of the crust that has no sauce or toppings on it, is wider than usual here and slightly chewy.
And while blisters - charred bubbles on the crust from baking in the hot oven (900 degrees as advertised here) - can be part of the Neapolitan pizza legend, I'm in the "not a fan of blisters" camp, and I liked that I didn't find them here.
The crust thins to near invisibility in the center of the pie, and Cafe Porta Alba's pies do have the Neapolitan "wet center," which, as with blistering, you're either going to like or hate. I don't mind a wet center - and even wet, the center just manages to hang on; it doesn't quite fall apart.
If you're digging the tomato sauce, you can daub the wet parts of the center with the cornicione, or just pick it up directly with your fingertip. It's worth the savoring. Thanks to the fresh mozzarella and leaves of basil, the classic margherita has flavor that spreads across the whole pie - nothing is overdone here, or out of balance. The new cafe site at Hilldale has a sleek, upscale atmosphere; it's the most stylish pizzeria in town.
Like Cafe Porta Alba, Pizza Brutta also makes Neapolitan pizza in a wood oven.
But Pizza Brutta is the more casual restaurant; customers order pizzas at a counter, and they're delivered to the table. The tables and booths are dark wood, and the place has an old world pub feel to it.
As with many Neapolitan pies, the center of the pizza cannot support its own weight, and you're going to have to fold the slice or support it with your hand. The simple tomato sauce, made with San Marzano tomatoes, is focused on the fresh tomato taste, and while the toppings are laid on more generously here than at Cafe Porta Alba, they're proportioned appropriately across the pizza; there's not too much of anything, and you can taste everything.
Fans of oven blisters on the crust may prefer Pizza Brutta, as you're apt to get some on your pie.
While the standard margherita is very good, other combos tempt. The Bergamo eschews mozzarella for gorgonzola, along with ham and sun-dried tomatoes. The Siciliana's basil, prosciutto and eggplant balance the slightly bitter taste of gaeta olives.
Pizza Brutta's white pies, made with olive oil and seas salt instead of tomato sauce, are also very good - like the simple caprese, with basil, cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and Parmesan Reggiano.
Villa Dolce, in downtown Middleton, doesn't look like a traditional pizza parlor. The restaurant, arranged in a series of rooms in an old house, has the air of a bed-and-breakfast crossed with a cocktail lounge.
Most people come to order drinks, lean back in an upholstered chair and order up a few pizzas; they tend to leave with a cup of the homemade gelato.
Since pizzas come in only two smallish sizes (12 and 14 inches), they're perfect for sharing. And the pizza is light enough to allow for that gelato, too. The crust isn't cracker-crisp, but it is light and thin, and holds the toppings up staunchly.
The prosciutto and arugula pie, topped with a three-cheese blend and sliced tomatoes, is finished with drizzles of balsamic glaze. No tomato sauce, but it's not really missed. The contrast between the salty prosciutto and the sweet reduced balsamic is the star here. (It's a much lighter cousin to barbecue sauce sometimes found on barbecue chicken pizzas.)
Bonus: Villa Dolce's pizza reheats the next day better than any I've ever encountered.
Cafe La Bellitalia
Cafe La Bellitalia has that traditional Italian-American restaurant feel, right down to the red candles on the tables. The pizzas here are what I would classify as traditional "Midwest" style, but done well. I characterize the Midwest style as having a hand-tossed crust that's not cracker thin but not thick, either.
Cafe La Bellitalia's crust carries a good bread flavor and isn't too chewy. Avoid the American preference for dumping a grocery store's worth of toppings on the pie and go simple. I like the basil with eggplant (eggplant is not listed on the toppings menu but can be borrowed from the "Parmigiana" special pie), or heck, go ahead and order the Parmigiana, with breaded eggplant, onions and tomatoes.
There's no mozzarella di bufalo on the menu here, but just ask - the restaurant does sometimes have it on hand and will be happy to put it on your pie.
The Italian-American supper club vibe may not seem to mesh with Lombardino's seasonally changing menu in strangers' minds, but locals know that the kitchen here turns out inventive dishes year-round. That includes excellent pizza, baked in a brick oven.
The restaurant's namesake pizza, the Lombardino, is one pie that's always on the menu, most memorable for its combo of bold prosciutto and fresh arugula.
It's probably too late to catch two pies that were featured on the late-winter menu, the "roasted trumpet mushroom pizza" (with smoked mozzarella, fresh sage, roasted garlic and San Marzano tomato sauce) and the "winter Bianca" (with Fraboni's Italian sausage, onion, garlic, rosemary potatoes, mozzarella and an organic egg), but the promise of spring's fresh young vegetables will be just as enticing.