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Monday, March 30, 2009

The pizza, its char is just right

Posted By on Mon, Mar 30, 2009 at 4:37 AM

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Let's hear it for that rarest of psychiatric disorders, folie à plusieurs, "the madness of many," whereby large groups of people develop a shared delusion.

You remember how thousands drove to Conyers once a month to see the Virgin Mary screw with astronomical phenomena and channel messages to a woman living there. That was arguably a case of folie à plusieurs, even though nobody really deserved classification as loony-toons. (Of course, religion always exempts itself from characterization as crazy, even when its statues are bleeding grape jelly.)

I'm sorry, but I feel some of the same is going on with Varasano's, the new pizzeria in Buckhead, whose opening -- 10 years in the making, according to our server Sunday night -- has caused more buzz than any restaurant in memory. Last week's opening was even announced in the New York Times.

There's a very simple explanation for all of this: Owner Jeff Varasano (whose passion for pizza I certainly do not question) has been hosting foodies at his home, where he has long experimented with making the perfect pizza.

These parties -- rather like the private "restaurant" meals in the apartments of Mexican cooks a few years ago -- created a sense of exclusivity that led the invited, many of them bloggers and food writers, to pen anticipatory paens to a restaurant that had yet to open. A vocabulary even emerged with certain words, like "the char," being repeated constantly. The char ... it is just right ... The char ... Other pizzas in town, they do not have the ... char.

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So, Sunday night, after hearing the amazing fado singer, Mariza, at the Herst Center -- her char was so hot -- I visited Varasano's with my friend Michael. We ordered the salumi platter, the caprese salad (above, right), the New Haven clam pizza, the Nucci pizza (top photo) and the Italian doughnuts.

I might as well say the unthinkable up front. I do not get the big deal. The pizza was good -- hey, I loved the char -- but the Nucci was floppy and bordered on soggy in the middle, despite its delicious topping of arugula, coppa and ementhaler. I preferred the firm, dry crust on the clam (no cheese), with just a slight transition to moist at the center. But I must issue a warning about this pizza. Its garlic was absolutely overwhelming, especially in combination with the rather heavy garlic on the Nucci. I'm talking raw, crunchy garlic that will announce your dinner to people for hours afterward. Do not order two pizzas that feature garlic!

What did I like on my first visit? I loved the thin crust, although it did not have the airiness I expected. It was also obvious that the kitchen is using top-rate ingredients. Olives, meats and cheese were all great. The arugula was particularly flavorful and I eat a lot of the stuff.

But then there's the caprese salad. I do not understand caprese salad with out-of-season, tasteless tomatoes. Why bother? And look closely at the photo. You will see the unthinkable: balsamic vinegar! Personally, I don't mind it with the salad but purists insist it is taboo. The bufala ... well, you be the judge.

I learned from another critic there -- one of Varasano's fans -- that the pizza was not up to par because the dough had only set 12 hours instead of the usual 24. That, of course, is because of the gigantic crowds.

I'm looking forward to returning to try more ... soon. This, obviously, is a very early look at the place. The pizza already is better than the average gourmet pie in town, but I'm holding it to the Olympian standard that its many fans have created. Oh, and I should note that the place is inexpensive. All of the pies are under $15.

Finally, here's a question. Notice that Varasano's logo (above, left) incorporates the "cubed root" sign. I am guessing this is an allusion to Jeff Varasano's being the Rubik's cube champion at 14. Am I right?

(Photos by Cliff Bostock)

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