Monday, May 04, 2009

"The Great Pizza Hunt" at Antica Pizzeria and the Battle of Two Neapolitan Pizza Places

A while back, I decided to start a new restaurant series for my dining group, Pleasure Palate, revolving around pizza. Considering how many pizza joints are in Los Angeles, I knew that this would be a dining series that would probably take me into infinity, but you gotta do, what you gotta do sometimes, so "The Great Pizza Hunt" was on.

Our next stop was Antica Pizzeria in Marina del Rey. I chose Antica primarily because the restaurant is a certified member of The Verace Pizza Napoletana Association (VPNA) in Italy, which is a governing body that sets the specifications for what is a true Neapolitan pizza. For example, the specification clearly states that a pizza must have a 0.1" thick base, (a little more than a credit card), must use fresh mozzarella, must be thrown by hand, must use Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and must be cooked in an 800F (or higher) wood-fired oven for no more than 90 seconds. Look below for some links you may find interesting.

American Chapter of VPNA

Original Italian VPNA

Detailed English Translation of Specifications

More ...

The only other Neapolitan pizza place I've been to was Bollini's Pizzeria, but as far as I know, this restaurant is not part of the VPNA. My dining experience at Bollini's was stellar, so I was really interested in comparing both pizzas considering Bollini's wasn't certified and Antica was. Before I start talking about the pizzas, I wanted to mention 3 appetizers our groups shared, 2 of which I've never had before.

The first one was the Arancino di Riso, which is basically risotto mixed or stuffed with mozzarella and/or other ingredients, coated with bread crumbs and deep fried. Antica's version had spinach as the only vegetable component and came with tomato sauce. I liked the fluffiness of the filling and plus it's an appetizer that's not too heavy, especially considering all the pizzas we'd be sharing soon.

Our second appetizer was the timballetto which is a puff pastry filled with pasta, meat sauce and mozzarella. Hmmm...a puff pastry and rice as one dish? I never would have thought to put those two together. If you're watching your calories, this appetizer is definitely heavy on the carb size. It reminded me of when I was a kid when I'd make spaghetti sandwiches. Come on, don't tell me you didn't do that yourself? Anyway, the pastry shell wasn't as flaky as it could have been, but overall, I'm actually pretty ambivalent about it. I didn't dislike it, but I wouldn't go out of my way to order the timballetto again.

I would order our third appetizer again without a question. It was a Caprese Salad with sliced fresh mozzarella, tomato and arugula drizzled with an herb and red pepper infused olive oil. Simple ingredients, but oh-so-fresh and with a little bit of a kick from the olive oil.

With the appetizers out of the way, let's start talking pizza, first about the pizzas in general. Appearance wise, all the pizzas already looked different from Bollini's pizza in the sense that Antica had a more pronounced crust edge. While Bollini's crust was more cracker crisp, Antica's was softer and had more of a chew to it. Another difference is how cheese was utilized. Bollini's pizzas had the cheese spread throughout the pizza topped with various toppings and then cooked until the cheese was melted, similar to how we normally expect pizzas to be like. At Antica, the cheese were cut in chunks, mixed together with the ingredients and than placed on top of the pizza surface without even a tomato sauce as a base plus the cheese wasn't completed melted through. Please see a picture of a Bollini pizza below as an example.

Another thing to note is that 11 out of 15 of Antica's pizza have mozzarella as the only cheese of choice whereas at Bollini's, there was a selection of cheeses and sauces to choose from. From what I read, using a buffalo mozzarella seems to be part of being labeled a Neapolitan pizza. The final difference is that while the toppings at Bollini's were spread out from center to crust, all the toppings at Antica were pooled in the middle. Considering that Antica does have certification from The Verace Pizza Napoletana Association, it's probably right to assume that their Neapolitan pizzas are more authentic, but if anyone wants to chime in with their thoughts, I'd love to hear them.

So now, let's talk about the actual pizzas. The first one we had was the Del Cafone Pizza, which had Italian sausages, rapini and smoked mozzarella. I really enjoyed the combination of flavors coming from the peppering of the sausage, the slight bitterness of the rapini and of course, the smokiness of the smoked mozzarella. It was also a different experience to have the cheese not completely melted through and instead experiencing it is as a separate ingredient.

The next pizza to arrive was the Capricciosa with artichokes, mushrooms, black olives, mozzarella, prosciutto and tomato sauce. For this pizza, I wish they had spread out the toppings more evenly. Depending on which side you pulled your slice from, it would be comprised mostly of tomato sauce only. Also, if whole olives were going to be used, they should have put more of them or just use sliced olives. There were only 4 olives on the whole pie and with about 9 slices, that's really not enough. As for how it tasted, there was nothing special about it. It was just okay.

As for the Vegetali Grigliati, which came next, the toppings were a bit more generous and also spread out a bit more evenly. The ingredients were comprised of grilled vegetables, smoked mozzarella, chopped tomatoes and garlic. Actually, the grilled vegetables were really just grilled eggplant. There definitely needed to be more variety when it came to the vegetables, which would have added more flavor and color to this pizza and there also needed to be more garlic. There wasn't any on my slice, but maybe, it was distributed more heavily on the other half of the pizza.

Our last pizza, which was the Bianca al Prosciutto, was actually my favorite of the four we tried. There were only 4 ingredients on this pizza: mozzarella, Parmesan, prosciutto and arugola. Unlike the other three pizzas, the mozzarella along with the Parmesan cheese was melted as the base below the other toppings. I have a feeling that's one of the reasons I liked it so much. Melted cheese on pizza is just so right. How can it be wrong? This is also the first time that I had fresh, uncooked arugula as opposed to it being cooked as a pizza topping. I loved the use of the fresh arugula because you really get the full hit of its pepperiness that went perfectly with the saltiness of the prosciutto.

Between 3 appetizers and 4 pizzas, you'd think we wouldn't have room for dessert, but somehow we persevered and shared two of them. One was the Tiramisu which has a base of lady fingers soaked with espresso coffee and layered with mascarpone and zabaglione cream and dusted with cocoa. Tiramisu can sometimes be too sweet, but this was just right. It was light, fluffy and a pleasure to eat.

Last was the Cannolo Siciliano which was a pastry tube filled with a vanilla flavored cream of ricotta and candied orange peels. I've never really been that much into cannolis,. I always find that the pastry shell to be heavy and not light and flaky. That was the case with Antica's Cannolo Siciliano, but I really did like the filling which was fresh and citrusy.

To sum up, there were hits and misses for me at Antica. It's definitely not a destination pizza joint for me, but if someone wanted to go there for dinner, I wouldn't necessarily talk them out of it. The one real conclusion I came with is if Antica is supposed to be a true representation of Neapolitan Pizza, it's not necessarily for me. I prefer a thin, crispy-cracker like crust and I like having melted cheese on my pie, both of which I had at Bollini's. In truth, I am a little confused. I know Antica has the certification and as far as I know, Bollini's doesn't, but both restaurants refer to their pizzas as Neapolitan pizzas. So what is the deal with the whole Verace Pizza Napoletana Association classification and is there more than one kind of Neapolitan Pizza? If anyone has any insight, I'd love to read about it. Maybe, I also need to try other certified Neapolitan pizza joints, but unfortunately, Antica is the only one in LA. If you want to try Neapolitan Pizza for yourself, click this link to find a certified restaurant in your part of town.

To see pics, go to:

Antica Pizzeria
13455 Maxella Ave # 201
Marina Del Rey, CA 90292
(310) 577-8182

Antica Pizzeria on Urbanspoon



sk said...

Well Sushi Gen and Katsuya are both considered Sushi but you could definitely argue one is more "authentic" than the other, but it doesn't mean that Katsuya isn't sushi. Although the differences at Antica and Bollini are not as pronounced....

it's hard to distinguish what is "authentic" or not just b/c cultures fused hundreds of years ago where flavors from the east merged with the west (in europe)

WeezerMonkey said...

Hmm. Well everything *looks* delish!

I really like Bollini's. I wonder what I'd think of this place.

pleasurepalate said...

sk: You make good points. I do find it interesting though that there's actually an organization that offers certification for "authentic" Neapolitan Pizza with such strict guidelines. Authentic or not, I liked Bollini's much better.

WeezerMonkey: There's nothing wrong with comparing, but I have a feeling you might like Bollini's better, too.

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Wandering Chopsticks said...

Well, Bollini's fits all those specifications so they could probably get certified if they wanted. I think it's more b/c Chris isn't the type to fuss about that sort of stuff. Like how the farmers I usually buy from at the farmers' market don't use pesticides on their crops, but the hassle and expense of getting certified isn't worth it for them.

mattatouille said...

I think Antica is much better than Bollini's, based on my experiences there, but I haven't been to Antica for a few years now. My friend who's studied/lived in Italy for a prolonged period says Antica is very authentic.

pleasurepalate said...

WC: I actually don't think Bollini's fits the specifications completely, which is why I think it like more.

mattatouille: If you ever go to Antica, I'd definitely be interested in knowing if you still think Antica is better than Bollini's.