Pizzas, Authentic and Daring

Quality pies anyway you slice it

Domenica Restaurant

JEFFERY JOHNSTON PHOTOGRAPHS

Getting good pizza nowadays is no longer a question of if you can find it but of where to go. Once a pizza backwater, New Orleans now enjoys authentic Neapolitan, deep-dish and that great American yardstick: the New York thin crust. Judging pizza is a dicey proposition.

One person’s favorite invites another’s scorn. I am not a deep-dish fan, but Chicago expats have been waiting a long time for something like Midway to come to town. In the end, perhaps a good pizza is simply one that strikes that primal pleasure chord when you bite into it, with a taste that either takes you home again or transports you to a happier place and time.

Ancora on Freret Street pegs its identity on authentic Neapolitan pizza. This isn’t a throwaway claim – true DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata, in this case authenticated Naples style) pizza follows a rigorous set of rules prescribing its every facet, from the dough to the oven to even its size. While the casual eater may interpret this as overly fussy, there’s a reason for it.

“Naples,Italy, is where pizza was invented, originally made from leftover dough they would fire in a wood-burning oven,” says chef and co-owner Jeff Talbot. “It is all about the crust and that’s what we want to showcase here.” Simple ingredients – just flour, water and sea salt, leavened with a starter Talbot brought with him from the highly regarded restaurant Cyrus in Healdsburg, Calif. – keep the emphasis on the crust. A slightly crispy exterior and a wonderfully blistered raised edge yields to a soft chewiness within.

The heart of Ancora lies in its wood-burning oven. Handmade in Naples, its striking dome is covered with a mosaic of tiles and serves double duty as both decoration and workhorse. The pizzas are cooked – quickly – at a blistering 820 degrees. Maintaining proper temperature requires constant attention and involves all the intricacies of working with fire. If the deck runs hot, pizza gets “domed,” i.e. lifted on a paddle toward the top of the oven to finish off the top so the crust doesn’t overcook. It is a work of artisanship, not automation, and the diner can read it in the unique complexion of each crust.

For choices, Talbot enjoys the Marinara, topped with just tomato, shaved garlic and oregano. I am partial to the Bianca (fior di latte, basil, olives, garlic and chili), speckled with sea salt that pops on the tongue. The in-house charcuterie program produces many of the cured meats used.  

At the other end of town in the Roosevelt Hotel, executive chef Alon Shaya of Domenica offers a large selection of wood-fired pizzas. Like Ancora, Shaya’s are done in the Neapolitan style. But unlike Ancora, Shaya breaks from the DOC covenants. “It is Neapolitan-style in that it has a thin crust and gets fired at around 800 degrees,” Shaya says. “But we don’t necessarily follow all those stringent rules.”

This allows him to throw open the gates when it comes to his compositions. He now offers 16 different pizzas. They range from classics like the Margherita (tomatoes, basil and mozzarella) to the avant-garde (strawberries, gorgonzola, speck and pecans). I lean to the ones that strike a balance, like his Calabrese (house-made salami, salty capers and olives).

Shaya’s personal favorite is the Enzo (mortadella, anchovies, basil and tomato), named in honor of his mentor in Italy. “When those flavors come together, it’s just heaven,” he says. “When I was working in Italy we’d make it for staff meal at the end of the night. I fell in love with that pizza and told Enzo that when I got back to New Orleans I was going to put it on the menu and name it after him.”

Despite the artisan approach, Domenica is a high-volume operation offering online ordering and a downtown delivery service, and consequently has an oven that can accommodate the crush. Made by Pavesi, it has a 1-ton rotating stone deck that helps expedite production. For toppings, they make their own salami, pancetta and mortadella in-house. Flexibility, too, is a hallmark: “If a 7-year-old comes in and wants a pepperoni pizza, who am I to say no?” he says. “We make what our customers want, because they’ve been very good to us.” If you go, keep in mind that happy hour is from 3 to 6 p.m. daily, when pizzas (and drinks) are half-price.

The shaggy dog success story in the pizza scene is Pizza Delicious in Bywater, launched as a pop-up by Tulane graduates Mike Friedman and Greg Augarten. Born of a craving for the New York-style pizza they missed from home, they have since leveraged their favorable reviews and loyal following into a full-time location set to open later this fall at 617 Piety St.

“Good pizza tastes like home. That’s been the big push behind everything we do – to try and make a pizza that tastes like home,” Friedman says. “A lot of East Coasters who live in New Orleans have gravitated toward us and we find that so gratifying.”

The pie is classic New York: thin crust, crispy across the bottom and flat across the top. The tomato sauce is light, with a bit more spice than might be expected in Manhattan, and while they offer a fair share of creative specials (coppa, sun-dried tomato and caramelized onion, for example), it’s their well-executed basics, like cheese and pepperoni, I gravitate toward. They do some bang-up garlic knots, and vegetarian and even vegan variations are offered as well.

A fundraiser called Pizzanity, combined with a small Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a new oven, has helped secure funds for their new spot. Until it opens, getting a slice involves some thinking ahead. The current pop-up phase is only open for business on Thursdays and Sundays starting in late afternoons, and orders for a full pie should be phoned in ahead, the earlier the better.
 

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