Old World Pie
Wish you could make Filiberto's true Neapolitan pizza? Tough.

In the winter of 1982, while Veraci’s future pizzaioli were all but padding around in diapers, Mina Perry was convincing contractors in her native Italy to bring bricks and building plans for a traditional wood-fired oven to Filiberto’s, the Italian restaurant by Sea-Tac airport she owned with her husband and their partners. By spring, Seattle had a Naples-style pizza oven—the first, most local food experts agree, in the area.

A small, slightly rounded woman of 72 who will as soon raise her voice and shake a finger at a slow server as smile angelically after a compliment about her cooking, or her grandchildren, Perry had been feeding the South End handmade meatballs in her father’s simple, perfect, family-recipe sauce since the early ’70s. (For a brief time, she even fed downtown shoppers. Nordstrom asked her to do some cooking demonstrations for an Italian festival they held in 1974, and her lasagna was so successful they asked her to open what would be the department store’s first cafe. The partnership was short-lived; Perry couldn’t abide by the return policy: “It works for shoes, it don’t work for salami.”)

Perry hadn’t made pizza, however—not like this—since leaving her parents’ restaurant in Mirabella Eclano two decades earlier. When the oven was ready, the Filiberto’s clan sent word to the handful of families who also immigrated to the South End from the Avellino province outside Naples. It must have been quite a dinner. She probably prepared a few pies con la cipolla, with a tangle of sweet, caramelized onions, almost no cheese, and her trademark San Marzano tomato sauce. It’s easy to imagine friends like Carlo Durante, the owner of Alfa of Tacoma, lifting perfectly charred crust to his mouth, closing his eyes, picturing the village, Grandma, his boyhood home…while a couple dozen kids with names like Raffaela and Salvatore had the run of the squat cinder-block building on Des Moines Memorial Drive with its bocce court out back.

Thirty years later, at the end of last April, Perry stood outside what would be her new restaurant and anxiously oversaw the delivery of a second pizza oven. This one was also from Italy, but it came built and ready to go, and would burn gas—provided the movers could negotiate the eighth-inch sliver of wiggle room that the door jamb allowed.

The last six months had been difficult. By this time, it was just her and her son Pat—her partners were gone, and so was her husband; he died in ’02. Displaced by the completion of the third runway, Perry and her son had accepted the Port of Seattle’s buyout offer on their air-polluted property and began looking for a new location somewhere near the brand-new and, at the time at least, very promising Burien Town Square. But then all of the sudden the whole country was broke and paranoid, and the new buildings along 152nd Street were empty and alone. And it wasn’t as if Burien didn’t have enough Italian joints. Notably: Angelo’s and Vince’s, both red-checked-tablecloth holdovers from the era of Frank Sinatra crooning “One for My Baby,” and Abruzzi’s, a downtown Seattle favorite from the same era that had closed in ’94 and resurfaced in nearby Normandy Park.

At her age, Perry might have decided to walk away from it all, but instead she and Pat settled on an annex of the local KeyBank. The place works, and looks, better than that might sound, although nothing with the build-out went smoothly. Or according to budget.

Perry Pizza

Mina Perry alone knows the ratio of water, yeast, and flour that makes Filiberto’s crust taste like the essence of Italy.

“There are people who eat to live and people who live to eat,” she told me one afternoon after the long-awaited, successful reopening of Filiberto’s Cucina Italiana. Perry’s accent is still wonderfully thick and lyrical after all these years; almost every word has that southern Mediterranean “a” before or after it. “There is-a no limit to what they will a-do. These a-people, they have a passion to a-cook, and-a to eat. They don’t a-worry about the cost,” she said.

Perry’s customers certainly don’t—tortellini with meat sauce runs $17—and she’s teaching them not to be in a hurry, either. On Saturday nights they wait an hour for a table, and then another hour to be served that pizza con la cipolla. “I make it all by hand, and I’m proud of that. If they don’t want to wait, I don’t care,” she says of those who come for her Old World food and expect New World timing. There is only one Mina, and she alone knows the ratio of water, yeast, and flour that makes her crust taste like Italy the way perfect pita tastes like the Middle East and buttery croissants are the very essence of Paris.

In a city like ours, it seems impossible—or at least unwise—to declare one pie the best, but consider this: Before a now-beloved local chain sent out their first wood-fired Naples-style pizza, the proprietors came to Mina and asked her if they could study her technique and practice in her oven on her days off.

“Huh! What do you think I told them? If you ask that in Italy they gonna break your legs,” she snapped. “The guy, he tell me, ‘I went to Italy for 10 days and learned to make pizza.’ I tell him, ‘Ten days? You must be smarter than me. I been learning my whole life and I still don’t know nothing.’ ”

Except, of course, she does. —Laura Cassidy