When I asked Di Palma how he managed to find Liberato, who bakes pizzas like Lombardi coached football, he told me that Liberato showed up one day and asked for a job. As for Di Palma, he’s an Italian-American who grew up in New Jersey and New York with “a cousin in Marietta.” That, in short, is his wise guy way of describing how he managed to open a pizzeria in Atlanta. He “spent a lot time in Naples growing up” where he studied and worked in some of the world’s greatest pizzerias. He is the pizzaiolo at Antico; Liberato is the “fornaio” — the guy who tends the ovens.
The blogosphere exploded with reviews of Antico, and Di Palma, a true showman, doesn’t seem to mind the attention. He had me figured by the second time I showed up with a friend, and Liberato gave me a tour of the ovens — which are as much about what makes Antico what it is as the dough.
When that dough hits the more than 900-degree heat from one of three Italian Acunto wood-burning ovens in Di Palma’s kitchen, a miracle happens. Crusts form and sear, charring just a little on the surface. The dough swells toward the edges, and at around 140 degrees settles there to form a soft pillow. Mushrooms swell with moisture before giving way to scorching heat. The fat in spicy sopressata melts almost immediately, eventually curling the edges of the salami to blistered perfection.
All of which is to say that within about 60 to 120 seconds, you’ll have before you, one of the best pizzas you will ever eat. San Gennaro is Di Palma’s personal invention, a sweet-hot mix of salsiccia, tiny “dolce piccante” peppers (as Di Palma calls them), fior di latte, fresh buffala mozzarella and cipolline. Named after the patron saint of Naples, where pizza was invented, it is pure pizza bliss.
Even better, if you love meat, is the spicy diavaola (or diavola) — sopressata, peperonata and mozzarella meld into a mind-blowing meat fest, with charred crust and chewy dough. And if you don’t love meat, there’s Margherita or bianca.
Italian opera, performed by Andrea Bocelli, blares through speakers, and some of the cooks sing along. Di Palma brings some house-made biscotti, cannoli and pignoli cookies while catering to new customers who have just arrived. Lombardi said, “Confidence is contagious and so is lack of confidence, and a customer will recognize both.” I don’t think Di Palma has anything to worry about.
Antico Pizza Napoletana
Food: Naples-style pizza
Service: Counter service provided by a cast with more character than Stanislavski could ask for.
Price range: $ - $$
Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover
Hours of operation: Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. until "the dough runs out."
Best dishes: "San Gennaro" pizza, pizza diavolo, cannoli, pizza "capricciosa," pignoli cookies
Vegetarian selections: Pizza bianca, pizza Margherita
Parking: Small adjacent lot
Reservations: For communal table in the kitchen
Wheelchair access: Yes
Noise level: Medium
Address, telephone: 1093 Hemphill Ave., 404-724-2333
Web site: www.anticopizza.it
Pricing code: $$$$$ means more than $75; $$$$ means $75 and less; $$$ means $50 and less; $$ means $25 and less; $ means $15 and less. The price code represents a typical full-course meal for one excluding drinks.
Key to AJC ratings
Sets the standard for fine dining in the region.
One of the best in the Atlanta area.
Merits a drive if you're looking for this kind of dining.
A worthy addition to its neighborhood, but food may be hit and miss.
Food is more miss than hit.
Restaurants that do not meet these criteria may be rated Poor.
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