First Look: Varasano's Pizzeria

Enrico Liberato is the new chef, the pizzaiolo, at Fritti. Like everyone else obsessed with pizza in our city, he had to visit Varasano’s Pizzeria (2171 Peachtree Road, 404-352-8216) in the new sky-scraping Mezzo building in Buckhead.

Varasano’s, in case you’ve been living contentedly under your homemade Chef Boyardee pizzas, has received more media buzz than any restaurant in memory. Jeffrey Varasano, the restaurant’s owner, became something of an Internet celebrity after he moved to Atlanta and began blogging his efforts to re-create the pizzas he ate regularly in New York City.

Food bloggers have been singing his praises for at least a year. And the New York Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution both ran major feature stories about him on July 2, 2008, after the writers attended one of the private parties he frequently hosted at his home.

These parties were rather like public scientific experiments in which Varasano attempted to make perfect pizzas with his electric oven. They also, of course, were brilliant marketing for the restaurant, creating such anticipation that Varasano’s Pizzeria was effectively given rave reviews before it even opened.

A good bit of mythology has grown up around Varasano, whose work as a software engineer and fame as the national Rubik’s Cube champion at age 14 have added a techy dimension to his truly passionate quest for perfect pizza. On his website, he details his experiments and critically assesses each pie he has made.

Liberato, who speaks practically no English, is from Naples, which is considered the epicenter of all things pizza. In view of the fact that Varasano listed Fritti under his website’s category of “Fake Pizza,” and described its pizzas as “pathetic tasteless cardboard,” Liberato was anxious to try the pies of such an aggressive and passionate competitor.

He went. He ate. He frowned, but only barely. And, pretty hilariously, he ended up in Varasano’s kitchen, demonstrating the right way (in his opinion) to make a pizza.

I’ve eaten at Varasano’s twice in the last two weeks and tried nearly all of the pizzas on its menu. As I reported on our Omnivore blog following my first meal, I found the pizzas inordinately soft, although ingredients seemed mainly first-rate and flavors were strong. The post provoked an avalanche of comments, many of them disputing my experience, even though Varasano himself commented that the kitchen was having problems. His representative commented that they had opened earlier than they planned because of the intense pressure from the pizza-craving hordes.

So, I waited a week and returned. I’m sorry to say that I found the pizzas outright soggy on my second visit. Many others, including Liberato, have had the same problem.

Varasano’s pizzas are New York-style, meaning they are inspired by Naples' originals but feature subtle differences. In my own experience, New York pies are typically large whereas Naples pies are smaller, but I haven’t noticed much of a difference at Varasano’s in this respect.

The classic pizza, the Margherita, is available at both Varasano’s and Fritti. At Varasano’s, it is made with the usual cow's milk mozzarella (fiordilatte) but you can order it made with fresh bufala for $5 extra. At Fritti, it is only made with bufala (and costs about the same as Varasano’s with bufala).

There are several reasons Varasano’s Margherita may emerge so soggy. For one thing, there is far more tomato sauce than there is on Fritti’s pie. Second, there is far more cheese. The mozzarella is extra-thick and may give up more water than Fritti’s bufala, which the kitchen dries before topping the pizza with it. Generally, the heavier the ingredients, the more likely you are to get soggy pies.

And then there’s the recent, constant rainy weather that can change the structure of the dough. But there are other problems that can occur with the dough. If left to rise too long, its protein can break down, causing it effectively to collapse.

Then there is the oven. Varasano is using an electric oven from Sweden, whereas Fritti and Baronda (another top-rated pizzeria) use wood-burning ovens. The rumor is that Varasano went electric because the Mezzo building would not let him install a wood-burning oven. To Liberato, this dooms the pizza from the start because of temperature variation inside the oven.

Perhaps. One often-repeated anecdote about Varasano is his discovery that he could create the necessary heat in his home electric oven by cooking with the self-cleaning cycle. (Actually, this is a not-so-new trick, detailed seven years ago by Jeffrey Steingarten in a piece for the Guardian.) Maybe Varasano will be as tricky with this oven.

Other pizzas I’ve tried at Varasano’s include the New Haven Clam, featuring crunchy garlic in a quantity that far exceeds my personal tolerance but is enjoyed by many; the Salumi with cured meats, mozzarella, tomato sauce and spiced olives; and the Bianco Verde with ricotta and mozzarella topped with arugula and a bit of lemon.

My favorite pie is the one we ordered for dessert one night — the Dolce, made with Medjool dates and Fontina, topped with honey, walnuts and rosemary. True, it was exceptionally gooey, but that added to the pleasure in this case.

I’ve also tried the Caprese salad, made with unripe, tasteless tomatoes the night of my visit, but I’ve received several e-mails claiming that has changed. The salad is served with a decent mozzarella (not bufala mozzarella, as I earlier reported). The romaine salad is quite good and I enjoyed the fried Italian dougnuts that concluded my first meal.

I think Varasano’s at this point still needs improvement. The pies are delicious just as they are, and better than most in town, but the problem with the crust had not been resolved at this writing.

There is another way to look at this, though. If the pies turn golden brown, have that dappled char everyone raves about, and they taste good, does it really matter that they’re softer than the usual? Not as long as they avoid outright gooiness, which they did during my first visit.

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