Eating pizza is a lot like having sex: great anytime of the day including first thing in the morning; even if it's bad it's still pretty good; and if it's great you want more immediately.
Anyone who's lived in this city for long enough has probably had more pizza partners than is usually healthy and has probably fallen for the odd one. I know I've had my share. Whether it was the local fave in undergrad or the trendy fling that comes with more discerning tastes, I've eaten my share of pie but never really found one I could commit to, never one that captured my heart--until now.
Open less than a week and getting more pixel buzz than the latest Britney meltdown, Pizzeria Libretto could possibly be the best fucking pizza in the city and all it takes is a quick chat with proud business partners/pizzaiolos Max Rimaldi and Rocco Agostino to understand why: they're both insanely passionate about what they're doing. Going so far as to have their wood-burning oven built by a Neapolitan craftsman and their pizzas conforming to rigorous D.O.P. pizza making strictures, you could call them obsessed and you wouldn't be far off the mark. Lucky for you too, since all this attention to detail from picking the freshest local produce, making much of their own salumi and importing some of the best cheeses and tomatoes straight from Italy on a daily basis really makes the food something special.
Walking up to the Ossington shop-front on opening night with a couple of dining companions (enlisted so we can savour as much variety as possible) I'm vaguely concerned since there seems to be a small crowd loitering outside and the space looks rather tight with people lined elbow-to-slice along the window-side bar facing the street. Since Libretto doesn't yet take reservations we briefly entertain the sad reality of take out until we walk thru the door, our nervous, first-date-with-the-new-place jitters melting back into excitement as we're greeted by a faint hint of wood smoke and notice the friendly modern space stretches longer than the truth in a good fishing story, deep into the back. We manage to snag a seat near the oven and get to watch the action unfold as a steady stream of pies is finessed amid a flurry of flour and chef's whites.
Since we visit opening night, a few service hiccups are to be expected but I'm pleasantly surprised by how friendly, competent and engaging the staff are always pausing to make sure your wine glass is full and ready to help with the daunting task of narrowing down the menu.
A complimentary basket of bread and peppery olive oil drizzled with balsamic makes its way to our table so we decide to split an app and casually snack, focusing our attention on the difficult task of whether we want thick rings of toothsome, deep fried Buttermilk Calamari a la Romesco ($9) or something from the salumi i formaggi finally forgoing both for one of several bruschette on the menu: ours dressed with garlicky licoricy-tinged basil pesto genovese and thick pepper-pink, slices of spicy house-made sausage all sprinkled with pleasantly tart, salty chevre ($6). Tucking in, we are quickly introduced to what's to become a recurring theme this evening: balance. All the flavours are very thoughtfully chosen; all the ingredients painstakingly selected and exceedingly fresh and everything playing so well off each other you can't help but be seduced.
The pizzas arrive en masse as requested to better share the spoils and they look fantastic with a distinctive leopard-spot char and blistered at the edges from the wood fire. And they certainly don't disappoint on the flavour front. The prosciutto pizza ($15) comes layered with salty, paper thin strips of pink parma ham, mild, gooey mozzarella that counterpoints the smoky char of plump tomatoes, and crowned with a bright green tangle of fresh basil.
The mild fishiness of the sardine pizza ($13, pictured above)--not salty at all as you'd expect-- comes sans cheese and provides another example of perfectly balanced construction as the pizza's citrus infused olives provide both the majority of the salty note along with a wonderful tang that elevates the seafood taste. With a hit of fresh herb and chilli oil heat the result is nothing short of amazing. Even the vehemently anti-piscivorous element at the table agrees that this pizza's something special; the whole greater than the sum of its humble parts. The third member of our naughty "threesome" once again features slices of house-made sausage coupled with fruity caramelised onion ($13) that mixes sweet and spice in perfect proportion with a mellow hit of the excellent mozz and is a real highlight of the meal demonstrating Chef Agostino's deft touch at combining flavours.
As we gleeful exhaust ourselves on the excellent feast and drain the second bottle of our reasonably priced red wine, the attention of the party turns to the crust. Far from being simply a medium for the toppings, it adds yet another excellent flavour note (as it should), combining its crisp, toothsome texture with a smoky char that doesn't mute the toppings but seems like a natural addition to the flavour palate that would definitely undermine the mix in its absence.
After our outstanding meal and greedily spooning the last mouthful of fragrantly citrus-y and impossibly light panna cotta with bluberry compote ($7) into my gaping maw, I chat briefly with Max who entheuses that there's a longstanding rivalry between Roman and Neapolitan style crusts (purists starting regular flame wars usually reserved for the Canon/Nikon debate) and gushingly proud of which side of the feud he zealously supports. Roman pies, he informs, are much crackerier and provide a signature crunch where Neapolitan style pizza is slightly doughier, lending a subtle, bready chew to the pizza.
He's very proud of what his new joint offers and with good reason, there's really nothing like it anywhere in the city and for once all the advanced Chowhound foodie hype seems deserved. He excitedly talks about how much time was spent on picking the ingredients and how important it was to get everything right before he opened his doors. He even mentions that because he's offering proper Neapolitan pizza he's actually subject to surprise inspections by the Naples pizza police who guarantee that anyone wanting their stamp of approval meets the standards they set forth.
It sounds utterly retarded, shamefully cliché not to mention inappropriate for a resto review but I'm convinced I can taste a little love poking through the heady mix of flavours. This city's blessed indeed to find the occasional establishment run by people just a little bit crazy about what they do. They're true believers and want their patrons to understand why they love what they do. It's abundantly clear out of the gate that Pizzeria Libretto is one of those places. So am I in love? Dunno. I think it'll take another visit to know for sure. Right now I can safely say I do have a mad crush since Max and Rocco's pizza is all I've been thinking about for the past couple of days.
All photos courtesy of Aislinn Laffan.