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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Viva Evviva


In a non-descript strip mall, virtually next door to Spud Fish & Chips, is a gem of a pizza restaurant. Evviva Wood Fired Pizza is a bit tricky to find. You won’t see a big sign along the rooftop as there are for its neighbors (Spud’s dominates), but set your sights lower at storefront level and you’ll see the name. We walked right past it to the Edmonds ferry terminal, until a local pointed us back. It’s two storefronts to the left of Spud.

Inside are a few small tables and two long communal ones. Special-of-the-day pizza is posted on the board to the cashier’s left. In the back is a wood-fired oven, which blazes at almost 1000oF to bake traditional Neapolitan pizzas. You can also take comfort in Evviva’s use of organic ingredients where possible, EVOO, San Marzano tomatoes, uncured charcuterie from Zoe’s (which also supplies another of my favorite pizzerias in Ballard, Patxi’s), fior di latte mozzarella, prosciutto di Parma.

The salami pizza was a masterpiece (☆☆☆☆), the bright tomato sauce ground from San Marzanos, dotted with mozzarella, grana, fresh basil and Zoe’s salame, essentially a Margherita with meat. The hand-formed crust—thin, perfectly textured, made from organic flour, blistered and spottily browned—was addictive. We haven’t had pizza this good in a long time.

And a word about Evviva salad, one of three salads on the menu. Simply dressed with oil and vinegar and consisting of baby butter lettuce, grape tomatoes, Kirby cucumbers, chopped cilantro and a dollop of creme fraiche, it was an extraordinarily good salad.

evviva - 1

Evviva salad

Now, every time we’re in the neighborhood, such as visiting Savvy Traveler or Rick Steves travel store, we’d be hard-pressed not to come here for our meals.

Evviva Wood Fired Pizza
178 Sunset Ave S
Edmonds, WA 98020
425.299.0142

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
 

The Burnham at CBD Bar (Christchurch, NZ)


Of the pizzas she’s had in Christchurch, my daughter likes best the wood-fired ones served, not at a pizzeria but a brewery out in the borough of Woolston. Known for award-winning beers that they’ve been crafting since 2010, Cassels & Sons added a gastropub to the brewery. Enter the pizzas. I’ve eaten there three times on the way back from Sumner, the Port Hills or The Tannery, of which the brewery is a part. Like my daughter and her family, my impression of the pizzas has been very good.

C&S opened CBD Bar in Christchurch recently with almost the same pizza menu, with slight differences. Its presence near the central business district (CBD) attracts the big city folk—and would make it more convenient for my NZ family to get a good pizza.

CBD Bar lists 13 wood-fired, thin-crust pizzas on the menu. All of them are named for local geographic areas and nearby towns. Mine was the Burnham, simply prepared with tomato sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni, olives, red onions and mushrooms, all from the Woolston Market. The tomato sauce is fresh tasting, with no strong herbal or zesty notes, that places more flavor emphasis on the other ingredients. The only complaint I had were burnt, bitter spots on the bottom that a minute less in the oven could solve. Otherwise, this was practically a perfect pie (☆☆☆½).

CBD Bar
208 Madras St
Christchurch Central
Christchurch 8011
03-379 4223

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 at Ballard Pizza Company (Seattle)


My wife and I have been dog-sitting for our daughter this weekend. Rather than having her dog over to our house, we thought it would be best if we did the sitting where she would be most comfortable, at home, especially since this would be the first time my daughter would be away for a few days. This is the reason there has lately been a flurry of reviews of places to eat in the Ballard neighborhood, one of Seattle’s hot spots for dining.

Ethan Stowell already has a presence in Ballard with Staple & Fancy Mercantile. We dined there a year ago and had the fixed-price meal, which turned out to be not only delicious but far too much food than we could comfortably stuff in our stomachs, rather unusual for this kind of menu option.

To give customers value for their money, Stowell has decided to try a different concept—”natural fast food.” Think burgers, fish & chips and fried chicken. While “upscale” may not be the right descriptor, maybe “redefined?” Ballard Pizza Company is the first of this kind of venture, located only blocks away from Staple on Ballard Ave.

You can order a whole pie or a slice of pizza. But what a slice. Called a “fat” slice, it is one-sixth of a pie for $4. You can see what’s available along the kitchen-assembly line as you walk toward the cashier at the rear. Add a pint of one of several beers on tap, the combo should be enough to satisfy most modest appetites and eaten at one of the butcher block tables in front. Sit-down tables are reserved for whole-pie customers. For variety, there are several kinds of salad and pasta.

Our two choices were sun-dried tomato-Kalamata olive, and roasted garlic-rapini (both ☆☆½). The crust is New York-style, meaning that it is thin. The underside is baked a deep brown, crispy enough to lift without too much drooping. In fact, the tomato-olive pizza crust was over-toasted, almost crackery, while the garlic pizza was just fine. The topping was tasty with the olives providing the saltiness that the crust was spare on. On the other slice, roasted garlic provided a nice sweetness that was not balanced by adequate saltiness, from my point-of-view, and I scarcely consider myself a salt fiend. Bottom line: nice crusts but hardly stellar toppings.

Sun-dried tomato & olives; rapini & roasted garlic

Sun-dried tomato & olives; rapini & roasted garlic

We also shared an arugula salad (☆☆☆½). A generous mound of arugula leaves were served on top of wonderfully flavorful, thinly sliced prosciutto and drizzled with EVOO and lemon juice. High-quality Parmesan added extra savoriness.

Arugula salad (prosciutto, EVOO, lemon juice, Parmesan)

Arugula salad (prosciutto, EVOO, lemon juice, Parmesan)

BPC employs an old-fashioned pizza dough maker, one who tosses it into the air. The process involves massaging the dough with all fingers, flattening with palms, throwing the dough back-and-forth between left and right hands, then tossing the dough into the air, catching it with the backs of the closed hands, stretching (again with reverse fists) and repeating until the desired diameter is achieved. The crust maker, or I should say “master,” was able to finish one pie crust in 35 seconds, more if he had to repair tears.

Pizza crust maker

Pizza crust maker

Ballard Pizza Company
5107 Ballard Ave NW
Seattle, WA
206.659.6033

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