At the beginning of the year, I was on the coast of New South Wales, Australia, in a sleepy beach community. When my sister's birthday rolled around, we asked our neighbors where we should go to celebrate. They pointed us to a pizza place in a small town about 20 minutes inland. We drove out into the rural rolling hills until we came upon a tiny town called Mullumbimby. In the center of that town was a tiny pizzeria with sidewalk seating and a wood-burning oven.
We ordered a pizza for each of us. A ridiculous amount of food as it turned out, but when the pizzas arrived my mood changed from pleasant vacation stupor to delight. And then quickly to fury.
These pizzas were perfect. Thin, crispy, bubbly crust, fantastic flavor, sauce tangy but not too watery or thick, toppings super fresh, bold, balanced. "Why?" I sputtered to my amused family. "WHY? Why, if they can do it in the middle of nowhere in rural New South Wales, why can't we have pizza like this in Atlanta?"
Of course, by January of this year, Atlanta was already primed for pizza nirvana. Not since the Obama administration has something been so hyped, so highly anticipated as Varasano's Pizzeria. Jeff Varasano, software engineer, Rubik's cube champion, and self-made pizza guru, had a lot to live up to when his restaurant opened in March. Previously, Varasano had been holding pizza parties in his Buckhead home that had attracted hoards of foodies, as well as the New York Times. His online manifesto, which chronicled his obsessive quest for perfect pizza (and includes the now infamous fact that he overrode his oven's safety features to use the cleaning cycle to cook at super-high temps) set the stage for the public's obsessive reaction to his attempt at a traditional restaurant. When the doors opened, debate was immediately heated. It's the best pizza in the world! It's total crap! The crust is too thick/thin/brittle/soggy/charred/not charred! Is it New York pizza? Naples-style? He went with electric ovens! Fritti is better! It kicks Fritti's ass!
Jeff Varasano is a victim of his own hype (as well as a few rookie mistakes — his PR rep says the restaurant opened early because of public pressure. Huh?). And as much as I love a good, geeky debate about whether Atlanta water affects the dough's integrity and cosmic equilibrium, I tired weeks ago of such quibbles. What I want to know is, does it taste good? And how good does it taste?
I stayed away from the restaurant for more than a month, and can't speak to what I hear were some fairly inconsistent early pies. What I can say is that now, his pizza is, for the most part, blatantly delicious.
The crust is thin — crispy but not cracker-like. The bottom is kissed by a mottled black patina, which makes the chewy-to-crispy ratio just right — as long as the pizza stays hot, that is. But more on that later.
I could get into the intricacies of which topping is best, but my advice is to order what sounds good. My favorite is the classic margherita, but if you like an American, oregano-laced spice blend, go for the Nana's. The only pizza that stood out as a particularly inventive combination was the caramelized onion, its sweetness tempered by the funk of Emmenthaler cheese. The New Haven clam pizza was tasty enough, but was the one instance where the claim to authenticity bothered me. Pizzas in New Haven don't taste like this. The clams are fresher and usually whole.
In general, though, the toppings are secondary. The crust makes these pies. Although, if sloppiness is an issue for you, the drier pizzas — i.e., those without red sauce — are more likely to retain their integrity through to the middle.
There's one major flaw with these pizzas, and I blame it on the sourness of the crust. Varasano uses a sourdough base for his pies, which adds a tang to the overall taste. But as soon as they start to cool, the sourness becomes more pronounced. This isn't pizza to eat cold from the fridge a few hours later. Not only does it exhibit disturbing sourness, it also becomes rather cardboardy.
Varasano's calzone, unfortunately, is all wrong. It's just a pizza folded in half. The whole point of a calzone is its deviance from the two-dimensional format. There should be gooeyness and crispness and tidal-force seas of cheese and filling to behold. This flat version is a distraction from the restaurant's strengths.
Beyond the relative merits of the pie itself, Varasano's as a restaurant has its share of problems. The staff all spout Varasano gospel like they came from pizza Jonestown. When they ask if you've been here before, an emphatic "Yes!" is in order unless you want to hear a long-winded recruitment for the cult.
The room can be madness in the evenings, especially later in the week. Lunch is a far less exhausting ordeal.
The wine list is disappointing. I tasted four different wines trying to find something palatable and gave up. Whites were weak or overbearing, reds were thin or way too bold for the circumstances.
As a restaurant, Varasano's has a ways to come. But for the pizza alone, it's a success. No, it's not New York pizza. It's not Naples-style. It's not New Haven and it's not Mullumbimby. It's Varasano's, which is a worthy addition.
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