Antica Forma: Neapolitan Magic in Vernal (Utah)


What do dinosaurs, pizza and Israel have it common?

Trick question. The city of Vernal is close to Dinosaur National Monument, located in the little visited corner of northeastern Utah, the state with the most bang for the National Park Service buck. The monument has 1,500 dinosaur bone fossils on display in situ, making it a destination for paleontologists and tourists. Vernal also attracted the talents of chef Israel Hernandez, who learned the art of Neapolitan pizza-making in New York City under the tutelage of masters Don Antonio Starita, a third-generation pizzaiolo from Naples, and Roberto Caporuscio (Keste Pizza & Vino). In 2015, Hernandez even won third place in the USA Caputo Cup, the pizza world’s annual cook-off. Somehow, he was lured out of NYC to open Antica Forma (with a business partner Jody), a Neapolitan pizzeria in Vernal (population 10,000).

To have such a place in town, let alone a few blocks from the motel, was totally unexpected for me and my wife. A quick look at TripAdvisor and Yelp made me aware of it.

We started off with an arugula salad mixed with house-grown grape tomatoes, micro-planed Parmesan and a balsamic vinaigrette glaze. Excellent.

Fresca salad

The pistacchio pizza impressed us with its masterful crust, thin, chewy, crispy on the outside, nicely blistered in spots. This is a hallmark of an excellent dough, likely “00” flour, and mastery over a blisteringly hot pizza oven. The pistachio pesto was a sleight of hand; it was hard to tell the ground nuts from the finely ground Italian sausage. A cream sauce with house-made mozzarella cheese, basil and EVOO completed the delicious surprise (top image).

We were ready to pay the bill when the waitress mentioned that one of the dessert specials was peach pie. Fond memories of Marie Callendar danced in our heads. What arrived was a fresh peach pie with the lightest, barely sweet glaze, topped with whipped cream. And, oh, that crust—so incredibly light. The desserts, it turns out, is made by Jody, the business partner. He also makes gelati. The waitress encouraged us to try the banana cream pie the next time we come back. Come back? Now, that’s a thought.

Fresh peach pie

Our return. How could we not enjoy one last meal here? For the second night in a row, we ate at Antica Forma.

Salad: the Primavera—baby mixed greens, candied pecans, sliced Granny Smith apples, shredded Havarti, roasted tomato vinaigrette. Very good.

Primavera salad

Pizza: the Funghi—tomato sauce, house-made mozzarella, minced mushrooms, basil, EVOO. The same superb crust, a fresh tomato sauce. Excellent.

Funghi pizza

Our waitress last night informed us that Antica Forma will be opening a branch in Moab (in February 2018). Edward Abbey fans, rejoice.

Antica Forma Pizzeria
251 E Main St
Vernal, UT 84078
435.374.4138

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Antico Pizza Napoletana: Eating Portafoglio Style (Atlanta, GA)


I’m partial to thin-crust pizza with simple toppings. I should be able to count the ingredients on one hand. A crust crisped on the outside, chewy on the inside. If the pie doesn’t sag in the middle, even better. This doesn’t mean I won’t appreciate another style.

Antico Pizza Napoletana serves Neapolitan pizzas in Atlanta. In 2012, Zagat conducted a survey of the best pizzas in 23 U. S. cities. Antico came out on top with the highest score among pizzerias, an almost perfect 28 out of 30 points. This was worth checking out.

It’s located in the Westside section of Atlanta, along the periphery of Georgia Tech. I first noticed the small dining area as I walked through the door. The tables were entirely occupied by customers. I was concerned about getting seating. Opera music was being piped over the speaker system. The order counter was to the left, above which was the menu and a long illustration in comic book format on eating Neapolitan pizza portafoglio-style—holding the slice in your left hand, say, while folding the pointed end toward the outer edge with the right, finishing the crosswise fold with the left, and mangia. Even with their B.Y.O.B. option, a good selection of reasonably priced wines and other beverages can be purchased.

The two traditional and ‘protected’ Neapolitan pizzas are at the top of the menu—Margherita and marinara—followed by Antico’s specialties.

We were able to sit down after all. There is a much larger dining area in the back with long communal tables. At the rear of the room was the open kitchen flanked by three large wood-burning stoves and staffed by pizzaiolos, who were either hand-forming the dough and dressing the pies or baking. To my surprise, within ten minutes of ordering, the pizza arrived. I discovered later that Antico, like any authentic Neapolitan pizzeria, bakes their pies in blisteringly hot ovens at 900-1000o F, which cooks their pizzas in only only a minute or so.

Condiments, available in front of the cooking station, include dried red pepper flakes, grated Pecorino, minced garlic and chile paste. There is also a large plastic tub of calabrian chile peppers, an ingredient in another of Antico’s famous pies, the Diavola. Eaten straight though, they’re exceedingly salty.

Condiments

While our San Gennaro pizza (top image) is one of Antico’s specialties, it still had characteristics of a classic Neapolitan pie. A thin (and pliable) crust in the middle, puffed and spottily charred edge crust, nicely browned bottom, ground San Marzano tomatoes, bufala mozzarella. These essential ingredients are imported directly from Italy. Sweet peppers and salsiccia added sweet and savory notes. Grated scamorza cheese and roasted cipolline onions completed the toppings. A great pizza, clearly a signature pie. I marked this fantastically flavored pizza down slightly because of the soft middle crust, but that’s a personal dislike. But, with pizza this good, I could learn to love it. (☆☆☆½)

Antico Pizza Napoletana
1093 Hemphill Ave NW
Atlanta, GA 30318
404.873.1272
 

Patxi’s Pizza


Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood has a stellar group of pizzerias, several of which opened only recently. Delancy, Veraci, Ballard Pizza, Stoneburner and Pagliacci come to mind. The latest entry is Patxi’s Pizza serving a Chicago-style, thick crust pie. It originates from the San Francisco Bay Area, where the chain has nine outlets.

There is great effort to use quality ingredients. The recent introduction of a thin-crust option, for example, boasts an imported Italian flour best for making pizza, the double zero (“00”) finest ground, lower gluten classification that yields the ideal elasticity. Patxi’s also uses four kinds of mozzarella and house-made tomato sauce. Charcuterie items are supplied by two Bay Area companies that don’t add preservatives to their meats, Zoe’s Meats and Fra’ Mani, whose soppressata wins my vote for the best ever. Admirable as these practices are, they likely are matched by other fine pizzerias, including the ones in Ballard that I listed. So, in the end quality still boils down to taste.

Besides a bacon and pineapple pizza (which I didn’t sample because Hawaiian-style doesn’t appeal to me), the other one our party ordered was Tre Porcellini on a thin crust. Topped with Fra’ Mani salami, garlic-fennel sausage, Zoe’s pepperoni, mozzarella and tomato sauce, it is an outstanding pizza (☆☆☆☆) with exquisite savoriness, sausages that even my two-year-old granddaughter kept liberating from me, fresh-tasting tomato sauce and outer crust that puffed up gloriously with perfect chew. I would order this pizza again in a heartbeat, except that there are others on the menu that are obviously worth trying.

porcellini pizza

I am not a fan of Chicago-style pizza. There is too much dough for my liking. But my daughter, who is also not a fan, tells me that Patxi’s crust, reinforced with cornmeal, was surprisingly good. The deep dish pizza menu is different from that of the thin crust.

Patxi’s can hold its own against the home-grown pizzerias in Seattle.

Patxi’s Pizza
5323 Ballard Ave NW
Seattle, WA 98107
(206) 946-1512

 

Pizza Magic at Stoneburner


The recently opened Stoneburner has two meanings, our waiter informed us. Not only does it refer to the stone hearth oven in the kitchen but also to the namesake chef, Jason Stoneburner, who is also the executive chef at Bastille, only a block away in Ballard. The waiter added that the menu is Italian-inspired, much as Bastille’s is French. And like Bastille, the interior was designed to evoke a certain European ambience, including the actual interior of an Argentine Italian embassy which decorates the back portion of the restaurant. There a doorway connects to the Hotel Ballard, giving the impression that Stoneburner is a hotel dining room. One wonders if this was done in exchange for the customers’ use of the hotel restrooms. Just kidding.

The restaurant’s specialties are pizza and pasta, both of which are made from scratch. Small plates and seasonal vegetables are also prominent on the menu, as well as cocktails, local beers and wines, the latter in abundant supply along the southeast wall. The dinner menu offers proteins of various sorts, including an immense 60-oz steak that can (should) be shared by 4-5 people.

Three of us shared various items at lunchtime.

A nice beverage was the watermelon and mint shrub (☆☆☆), a seltzer acidulated with lime, but tasted unexpectedly of Chinese dried plum (li hing mui), complete with some saltiness.

Beef crudo (☆☆½), even when sprinkled with fried garlic chips, lacked distinction. Though the slices of raw beef were very fresh, the standard way of dressing carpaccio with lemon juice, olive oil and Parmesan cheese is my preferred preparation.

Grass-fed beef crudo with salt & pepper garlic chips

Grass-fed beef crudo with salt & pepper garlic chips

Categorized as a vegetable, Marinated Zucchini (☆☆☆) was more like a salad. Thinly shaved ribbons of zucchini were nicely dressed with lemon juice and sprinkled with mint, Italian parsley and tarragon. Toasted pistachios gave crunch to this tasty side dish.

Marinated zucchini with toasted pistachios, mint, parsley & tarragon

Marinated zucchini with toasted pistachios, mint, parsley & tarragon

Less successful were the Roasted Turnips (☆☆), partly because they aren’t the tastiest of vegetables, partly because the hazelnut accompaniment was unremarkable and partly because of under-seasoning. The larger bulbs were a bit fibrous. The smoked hazelnuts were tossed with a lovage gremolata that needed more inspiration, though they were tasty enough.

Roasted turnips with smoked hazelnuts and lovage gremolata

Roasted turnips with smoked hazelnuts and lovage gremolata

The crowning glory of the meal was unquestionably the pizza special of the day (☆☆☆½). Crumpled slices of mortadella—which is beyond me how they did it—were combined with a wonderful sauce, with potent tomato flavor, and savory cheese, dotted with slices of Castelvetrano olives. With its intense heat sources from above and below, the stone oven crisped up the pizza shell and mortadella nicely. A bit longer of an exposure could turn into a scorched disaster, which some early reviews complained about. Stoneburner pizzas are on the thinner side, though not as thin as Delancey’s, according to my daughter. It was possible to hold  a slice horizontally without the middle sagging down, despite its relative thinness.

Special pizza of the day

Special pizza of the day

Reviews of Stoneburner’s pastas have been positive. That will be on my list of things to try next time.

Stoneburner
5214 Ballard Ave NW
Seattle, WA ‎
206.695.2051
 

Lunch at Pallino Pastaria (University Village)


Italian restaurants around here have gone upscale. It’s almost impossible to find a ristorante with reasonable prices, especially in the suburbs where it’s unlikely you’ll come across a neighborhood spot. In walkable U.S. cities with large Italian-American populations like along the East Coast and in Chicago, this is probably not the case, but out here in the West, it’s a no-show. A plate of spaghetti with meatballs for $15? I don’t usually bite.

That’s why it’s a welcome relief that restaurants like Pallino Pastaria have come in to fill the gap. I suspect that Olive Garden owes much of its success to the value the chain provides. Though Pallino is a Washington chain, their mission is to serve well-prepared Italian food at less than a king’s ransom in an informal, family-oriented setting. Does it work? Their expansion into other locations over the years shows that it has. Is it gourmet food? No, but it’s pretty good.

Take their meatball sub sandwich (Meatball pomodoro) (☆☆☆). Four two-inch meatballs are served in a freshly baked ciabatta roll, lightly dressed with a very good tomato sauce. My gold standard for such a sandwich was a little take-out in Westchester near LAX airport. Now closed, Pizza Napoli made the most delicious meatballs that were topped with mozzarella slices, slathered in a sauce that usually wound up on my shirt and sandwiched inside the lightest of baguette-style rolls. I think in the early days, I might’ve gone once a week for that sub. But, in fairness to other sandwiches to which it has since been compared, Pizza Napoli’s was a Southern Italian version that had great appeal to me for its zesty killer marinara. Pallino’s is a very good version without Napoli’s lava flow of sauce but livened up by marinated bell peppers that added zing. A good panade tenderized the well-seasoned beef and pork meatballs. A difficult sandwich to hold without the insides falling out, cutting the meatballs in half should stabilize the situation.

Meatball pomodoro

Meatball pomodoro

Closer to a tomato explosion was their soup (pappa di pomodoro) (☆☆☆½) chockfull of fresh tomato chunks and thickened with bread. This was a zesty soup, tart, slightly sweet and herbal, delicious and satisfying. My wife orders it almost every time we dine at Pallino. Despite the soup’s excellence, my preference is their Italian wedding soup (☆☆☆½) that is more brothy and savory, which I didn’t get today.

Pappa di pomodoro

Pappa di pomodoro

Finally, we shared a chopped salad (☆☆☆) that was dressed with a judicious amount of a mild Italian vinaigrette. I prefer not having big slices of chicken breast in a chopped salad, but this is a minor quibble.

Chopped salad

Chopped salad

We wound up at Pallino Pastaria as we were surveying the restaurants in University Village, almost every one of them aimed at a well-heeled crowd, including the all-Asian-noodles-to-all-people, Boom. For about half the price of other places, we enjoyed a satisfying meal.

Pallino Pastaria
2626 NE 46th St.
Seattle, WA 98105
206.522.8617

Happy Hour at Taormina and Afterward (Honolulu, HI) **No Longer Observed**


An Italian restaurant doesn’t immediately come to mind when trying to decide where to have a happy hour drink in Honolulu. Along the short stretch of Lewers Street south of Kalakaua, several cafes, restaurants and bars compete for your happy dollar. We intended to get a drink at Yard House known for its plethora of cocktails, drinks and entertainment. But, today was Saturday when the happy hour menu is put away for the weekend. Minor disappointment. A sandwich board close by plugged Taormina, a Sicilian restaurant across the street. More than that, happy hour was happily being observed.

Taormina doesn’t have the flamboyance of Yard House or P. F. Chang where diners and imbibers are in full view from their huge open-air spaces. There is an immediate atmosphere of formality when you walk in: tablecloths, cloth napkins, dressy waiters. You wonder if you’re properly attired to dine here, but I figured that the restaurant wouldn’t be so naive not to expect shorts and sandals in Waikiki. Sure enough, the wait staff didn’t batt an eyelash when we asked to be seated.

Peach prosecco bellini and Limoncello thyme cocktails at Taormina

Peach prosecco bellini and Limoncello thyme cocktails at Taormina

Of the two cocktails we ordered, the other a peach prosecco bellini, the limoncello thyme was a standout, so much so that we ordered another round before leaving for dinner. A big sprig of thyme floated like kelp in a tall glass filled with limoncello, citron, squeeze of lemon, simple syrup, and a splash of Chartreuse to add to the herbal and citrus flavors. At $5, it’s a great bargain for something this good. Outside of happy hour, it is more than twice that much ($14). The bellini was disappointingly weak on peach flavor.

From Taormina, we walked a few blocks to Eggs ‘n Things to split an ahi steak that had a nice furikake-macadamia nut crust. Cut at 1/2″ thick, the cooked tuna was predictably dry, but it was really tasty, served with wasabi mayonnaise served on the side. To top off everything, we got seated almost immediately, which is an impossibility for breakfast!

Ahi steak with furikake-macadamia crust and wasabi mayonnaise

Ahi steak with furikake-macadamia crust and wasabi mayonnaise at Eggs ‘n Things

Note: We returned to Taormina for a full dinner on our last night on Oahu. I mention this because, not only did we have the limoncello cocktail again, but had their outstanding bolognese alla classica, a recommendation made by a couple sitting next to us at happy hour (see above). It was surprising to see this Northern Italian entrée on a Sicilian menu; Taormina distinguishes it from its bolognese alla Siciliana. Regardless, we’ve never had better freshly made pasta (pappardelle, in this case) nor a finer ragù (made with beef, pork, chicken and foie gras), a dish made in Hawaiian paradise.

Bolognese alla classica

Update (9-10-14): We discovered that Taormina’s no longer observes happy hour.

 Taormina Sicilian Cuisine
227 Lewers St.
Honolulu HI 96815
808.926.5050
 

Dinner at Sazio’s (Eastsound, Orcas Island, WA)


Ever since the closure of La Famiglia many years ago, Orcas Island didn’t have a good Italian restaurant to go to. Portofino hardly qualifies since it’s mainly a pizza joint. That all changed when Bill Patterson purchased Chimayo and opened Sazio di Notte. His plan was to convert Chimayo, a favorite Southwest restaurant among locals, to a full-time Italian restaurant, but because of pleas from the residents, the restaurant now has a dual personality: Chimayo for lunch (en la dia), Sazio for dinner (di notte).

The restaurant prides itself on using fresh ingredients, including organic produce, and meats sourced from the island, which would include pork, lamb and goat. Judging from the menu, I would guess that the emphasis is on Northern Italian cuisine.

Our meal started out with a very fine dinner salad, actually an inventive variation of a Caesar without the anchovies, the olive oil infused with garlic and a little kick from jalapeño chiles. The salad is then crowned with finely shredded Parmesan. This, it turns out, was a favorite at Chimayo and has crossed over to Sazio.

Dinner salad, a reimagined Caesar

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