New World Neapolitan
Tutta Bella vs. Via Tribunali vs. Pizzeria Pulcinella
Naples has served up pie in more or less the same manner since the sixteenth century, when, history has it, pizza was born in the western Italian town. Immigrants to America were forced to improvise, since wood-burning ovens were scarce and there was nary a San Marzano tomato (said to be the sweetest in the world, thanks to low-acid soil at the foot of Mount Vesuvius). A distinct American-style pizza emerged, but lately some artisan dough rollers have returned to the traditional Napoli style, going so far as to be trained and certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, a Naples-based organization, which back in the ’90s pestered the Italian government until Neapolitan pizza received recognition as a distinctly regional culinary craft—on par with Chianti and certain cheeses.
Tutta Bella was the first Seattle pizzeria to be certified. Founded in 2004 after onetime Starbucks exec Joe Fugere was inspired by his Italian grandmother—“you don’t know real pizza,” she used to tell him—to learn to make the old-country pizzas that sparked her vaguely insulting nostalgia. In Naples he discovered that product consistency was as fetishized as it was in corporate America: Dough must be kneaded by hand or with a slow mixer and cooked in a bell-shaped wood-fired oven at a temperature of 800 to 1,000 degrees. It must be crafted from low-gluten flour, milled just outside of Naples, and topped with pomodoro made from the aforementioned San Marzanos. Oh and hey, paisano, don’t even think about getting creative with the formaggio, capiche?
It is one thing to be certified, another to keep up with the rigorous standards. Maybe it’s Fugere’s corporate training, but Tutta Bella’s four locations consistently churn out transcendent margherita pies: Fresh mozzarella, spilling sloppily, fuses with those sweet San Marzanos, sea salt, basil, and enough extra virgin olive oil to lend a touch of viscosity. The crust is chewy at the center and charred to a satisfying black crackle around the edge.
The second certification went to Via Tribunali, also opened in 2004. The local chain is best known for its cinematic-cool-meets-Campania interiors, each befitting the neighborhood where it’s found: glam vinyl booths at the Trib inside the Croc in Belltown, rough-hewn bric-a-brac atop the bar in Wild West Georgetown. Eating pizza here starts off well. On the flavor-melding Dante, two handfuls’ worth of bitter, peppery raw arugula is piled high atop an expanse of tomato sauce, salty prosciutto crudo, smoked provole, and cherry tomato. But, for some reason (Prep methods? Undercooking?), the crust at Via Trib tends to turn into a wet blanket before the pie can be consumed. When you eat here, eat fast.
Among the most recently certified, in summer 2009, is Rainier Beach’s Pizzeria Pulcinella —its cozy, daffodil-yellow walls are augmented by cheery light streaming from dangling lamps. Friendly staffers serve up the usual suspects along with original pies like the Chiaia (tomato, eggplant parmigiana, and mozzarella) and the sausage-dotted Vesuvio, a tasty reminder that “meatsa” need not always be an excessive endeavor. The crust is more brittle than Tutta Bella’s and Trib’s, and hollow at the edges. It’s not bad when it has spent enough time in the oven, which alas it does not always have the chance to do. A pizza cannot be saved by even the freshest discs of mozzarella or the brightest basil leaves when the base is barren of char and tastes mildly of undercooked dough.
BOTTOM LINE: Tutta Bella earns its certification as a true Neapolitan pizzeria with unfailingly consistent, perfectly gooey margheritas, while Via Trib and Pizzeria Pulcinella don’t quite get it right every time.