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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 27.0° F  Overcast
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Novanta brings heavenly Neapolitan pizza to Madison's far west side
Slow food, fast
Make your friends order the pies you want to taste, then share.
Credit:Julia Burke

There are a few things to know about Neapolitan pizza. First, it's small -- roughly 12 inches in diameter -- so you'll want to order one for each person dining. Instruct your companions to order the varieties you'd like to try and then suggest sharing them all family-style.

Second, it's "wet" at the center. Sauce and cheese are meant to pool in the middle, resulting in a fairly floppy slice that might be difficult to pick up.

Third, don't expect the traditional American solid layer of cheese. Neapolitans use high-quality fresh mozzarella as a garnish rather than a second topping canvas.

Finally, it's quick. Standard oven temperature is 900 degrees, which means a cooking time of about 90 seconds -- "Novanta" in Italian. Which brings us to the so-named pizzeria on Old Sauk Road, from the owners of Café Porta Alba.

Novanta offers red and white pizzas with a variety of toppings; there's also an option to build your own pizza. It features a mozzarella bar, with a selection of olive oil and extras, and a few panini and salads. The restaurant serves a modest selection of beer and wine, too, along with Italian bevande like Aranciata and Limonata, espresso, and Americano. It's all done carryout style in the small, narrow cafe, with a register up front and friendly service if you choose to eat in, either indoors or at one of the patio tables out front. Nick, the owner, is likely to come out and check on you personally.

The mozzarella bar is a must. It can be split, as a small appetizer, or taken as a salad course. A tender, luscious serving of Wisconsin-made house or imported buffalo mozzarella (a variety made from the milk of water buffalo raised in Campania and Lazio) comes with your choice of additions such as prosciutto di parma, salame, or cherry tomatoes. Pesto and a high-quality olive oil and balsamic blend, with a hunk of chewy bread, complete the dish. Slice a thick wedge of the cheese, add a drizzle of oil and vinegar and maybe a little pesto, and top with your selection of fixins for a delightfully light, refreshing mini-meal.

A puffy crust encircles each pizza, with little bubbles of char attesting to the oven's heat. I liked the hearty vegetariana, including vibrantly roasted peppers and mushrooms and pungent kalamata olives. The sauce was appropriately balanced and understated, accenting the San Marzano and smoky crust nicely.

A build-your-own "Nicola," or white, pizza has a base of olive oil, sea salt and basil. It features smoked buffalo mozzarella, arugula, and roasted onion with a beautifully crisped crust. The arugula, though piled high enough to feed a small rabbit colony for a week, was fresh and pristine.

At $6-$7 plus toppings for a build-your-own pizza and $7-$10 for specialty pies on the menu, these pizzas are more than satisfying for the money. Given the quick cooking time, you can feasibly enjoy a lunch or dinner in 20 minutes.

In addition to the light, Italian-style dessert options (tiramisu, gelato, lemon sorbet), Novanta offers a Nutella pizza, which is just what it sounds like: a plain wood-fired dough cut horizontally, slathered generously in the middle with Nutella, then sprinkled with cocoa powder. It looks like what would happen if a wood-fired pizza oven materialized at a college dormitory, but it's addictive, rich comfort food, and the char spots on the dough complement the hazelnut-chocolate flavors.

Whether the goal is quick takeout or a leisurely sit-down meal, Novanta is a pleasure from start to finish -- and a bargain, offering high-quality Neapolitan eats with just a touch of romance.

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