Chef William Morin is not quite satisfied with the pizza margherita that has just arrived at the table—he thinks the crust doesn’t have enough charred poufs of dough. “I want to see a slightly violent explosion of bubbles and a little more char [on every crust],” says Morin, who is chef de cuisine at Tuscan Kitchen in Salem, New Hampshire.
Few others can find fault with the gorgeous pie, wearing its red, white, and green toppings—the colors of the Italian flag—sparingly on the delicate crust, an improbable combination of light, tender, crisp, and chewy all at once. It smells of deep, yeasty fermentation and fresh herbs, and balances creamy cheese, fresh tomatoes, and a flaky texture in every bite.
The margherita, topped simply with tomato sauce, basil, and mozzarella, is the queen of Neapolitan-style pizza, which is having a moment across the country and right here on the North Shore. Acclaimed as the original pizza, it is marked by a chewy crust that is thin, but not too thin, and generally sparsely topped. Area restaurants are paying allegiance to the artisanal nature of Italy’s classic street food while adding their own special spin.
The first sign of dedication to authentic pizza at Tuscan Kitchen is the spate of specialty ovens taking center stage—sophisticated Wood Stone pizza ovens from California, which use a combination of wood and gas to reach temperatures of 900 degrees Fahrenheit. When the dough, which rises for three days before baking, hits the stone floor of that oven, it explodes with “oven spring,” producing the crusty bubbles that Morin prizes. “A little burn and char—that’s what makes it Neapolitan,” he says with a smile.
While it may be authentic, sometimes char requires a bit of consumer education. Over at Bambolina, which opened last year in Salem, an illustration on the menu shows what a Neapolitan-style pizza should look like, right down to the crust dotted with “flame-blackened blisters,” keeping customer complaints about “burned” pies to a minimum.
Those flame-blackened blisters appear thanks to Bambolina’s striking Italian Acunto Mario oven, which restaurant partners Larry Leibowitz and Tim Haigh know so intimately that they can detail the family feud that launched the brand. A pizza will spend a mere 90 seconds in the Acunto Mario, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for error. The pie starts out on the oven floor, then the chef lifts it up to where flames lick the domed roof, to get just the right amount of char.
“Just three seconds can mean the difference between charred and burnt,” Leibowitz says, adding that other subtle differences can also throw pizza off. For example, at one point the pies weren’t coming out with the same crisp-soft crust the pair had worked long and hard to achieve. After looking over all the variables, they realized a new employee was being just a little too rough when stretching the dough “We’re not secretive about our methods,” explains Haigh. “It’s less about the recipe and more about the way the dough is handled.” Care goes into every step of the process—after the trial by fire, pies rest on a cooling rack for a few minutes, allowing the crust to crisp up a bit further while the toppings cool from scorching to satisfying.
Bambolina adheres to many of the stringent requirements of a Neapolitan pizza, importing superfine double-zero flour and San Marzano tomatoes from Italy, but they are willing to step outside those lines too, calling their style “neo-Neapolitan.”
“We don’t want to be pigeonholed,” Leibowitz says. “We’re not looking to be the pizza police.” So while a traditional pie like the Rosso, which comes without cheese, are staples, customers also enjoy a summertime Farmer’s Market pizza, topped with pesto and whatever is fresh from local growers, along with other seasonal toppings like lamb confit or truffled egg and cauliflower.
A soft-cooked egg is also featured on one of the most popular pies at Short & Main in Gloucester. The kitchen cuts the pie in a hash tag pattern, a server helpfully explains, so the egg can sit alone in the center, ripe for dipping into with the crunchy crust. Short & Main’s wood-fired oven is such an integral (and expensive) part of the owners’ vision that they launched a crowd-funding campaign in 2013 to pay for the imported Italian cooker.
Short & Main
A perhaps even bigger investment was made in the pizza oven at Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse in Lynnfield—the whole kitchen was built around the gas-fired inferno, the brainchild of an Italian oven-maker and an American engineer.
Like the oven, Davio’s pizza is also a hybrid of styles, notes Michelle Boland, who mixes up the restaurant’s dough daily as part of her responsibilities as pastry chef. Not exactly Neapolitan style, the crust is a little thinner than the classic. “It’s between a pizza and a flatbread,” Boland says. She eschews imported flour in favor of the balance of gluten and protein in all-purpose American flour.
Whatever the flour, rise time, or thickness of the crust, the amount of thought that chefs are putting into what is, on the surface, such a simple—and ubiquitous—food means chances abound for a memorable gourmet pizza.
Tuscan’s chef Morin probably speaks for all the pizzaiolos on the North Shore when he says, “We’re not going for good. We want you walk out saying, ‘That’s the best pizza I’ve ever had.’” Fortunately for pizza lovers, the competition is pretty stiff—so choosing a favorite will be fun!
Get chef Michelle Boland’s summertime grilled pizza recipe here
67 Main Street, Salem, New Hampshire
288 Derby Street, Salem
36 Main Street, Gloucester
1250 Market Street, Lynnfield