Antico brings its pies to the suburbs

Here is a highly unscientific equation of real estate and restaurants. If a Banana Republic is nearby, the options for pizza are going to range somewhere between Sbarro and California Pizza Kitchen, both of which are good reasons to not eat pizza.

So, I feel a little odd saying that one of the best pizzas I’ve eaten in recent memory was at an outdoor shopping mall table with Banana Republic and Lululemon to my left and a Regal Cinema multiplex to my right. The story becomes only slightly less odd when I say this was an Antico pizza.

Antico Pizza Napoletana is one of Atlanta’s great culinary success stories. The lore goes that Giovanni di Palma took a lease on a drab cinderblock building near Georgia Tech in 2009 with the intention of mostly selling wholesale pizza to retailers.

That plan went awry when word got out about this boisterous New Yorker importing all of his ingredients from Italy and turning out perfectly blistered Neapolitan pies. People started arriving in droves — Georgia Tech coeds carrying six packs of beer, restaurant critics holding bottles of Barolo — and there wasn’t anywhere to sit. Giovanni said, fine, come into my kitchen and eat it right here.

The kitchen is still the place to eat at Antico’s original location. But, after several offshoots and side projects, Antico finally has opened a true second location at Avalon in Alpharetta.

The restaurant is an open-plan space full of Italian ovens, communal tables and boxes on the floor, but this isn’t much of an illusion. You’re eating in a high-end pizza joint in a mall, not in a gritty kitchen. Still, while Antico has failed to export that underdog charm, the pizzas have arrived intact.

Which brings me to that basically perfect pie I ate at Avalon the other night. The sun was setting, the shopping mall fountain was springing water, and I had a cup of Peroni beer in one hand and a slice of a San Gennaro in the other.

That pie comes with fennel sausage, red peppers, onions and mozzarella. It is hard to get that much sweet, acidic, creamy and hearty flavor onto a single pie without overloading it into a soggy mess and, yet, Antico has made a habit of that delicate balancing act. It was a happy moment.

While the San Gennaro is my favorite, I’m just as happy with the lasagna pizza, which comes loaded with dollops of ricotta, meatballs and, when I’m eating it, a healthy handful of Calabrian chiles from the condiment selection.

These are distinctly Neapolitan pies, topped with San Marzano tomato sauce, mozzarella di bufala, charred leaves of basil and a handful of other imported ingredients. There are calzones, too, including the spicy sopresatta and mozzarella bomb called the Vesuvio.

But that’s about it. You can grab a soda or a glass of red or white wine (really, that’s the whole wine list), but no salads, no antipasti. Antico is a single-minded operation.

The real attraction of Neapolitan pizza comes down to the crust. It starts with the most simple of doughs — only flour, salt, water and yeast — and ends with a very short, very hot trip in a wood-burning Italian oven. The result has little in common with a New York street slice.

When an Antico pie comes out of that extreme heat and is unceremoniously dropped onto a baking sheet at your table, you’ll notice the edges first. They should be blistered, a bit burnt, and risen like a plump, airy marshmallow.

If you pick up a slice, the thin wedge should be just crisp enough to fold but still limp enough that the point will slouch.

The bottom of the pie should be spotted with black circles of char like a wildcat.

And the first bite should be such an overwhelming rush of tender, salty, smoky goodness that you will stop paying attention and just stuff the rest of the slice in your piehole.

The pies I’ve had at Antico in Avalon are not always that good. I’ve had some that come out a little too thick, others that were not quite charred enough. Those are minor quibbles, to be sure, but the extreme simplicity of Neapolitan pie means that you notice more when one element goes awry.

When Antico hits every note, it can be as good as any pizza I’ve tasted in the world, Italy and New York included. When it doesn’t, the place still serves great pizza. Any shopping mall would be lucky to serve it.

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