Antico Pizza Napoletana

1093 Hemphill Ave., Atlanta, 404-724-2333

In the kitchen of Antico Pizza Napoletana, above a communal table, there is a squarely framed print of Vince Lombardi’s famous “Number One” speech. Bedside it, owner Giovanni Di Palma has placed two newer interpretations — in Italian and Spanish — for everyone who works at the Westside pizzeria to read before work each morning.

Di Palma will tell you that he’s particularly fond of this passage: “If you’re lucky enough to find a guy with a lot of head and a lot of heart, he’s never going to come off the field second.” It’s his motto. Then he’ll ask you if you’d like a little “vino,” explaining that although the restaurant doesn’t sell wine, you can bring your own or partake in a glass of his.

I can’t think of a restaurant in Atlanta’s recent history that has caused as much commotion as Antico, a spot originally opened only for take-out, but that has blossomed into a neighborhood place for people who live far beyond the neighborhood. A huge work bench has been set in a front room of this former bakery where people gather elbow-to-elbow to nosh on what’s arguably the best pizza in Atlanta.

I first read about Antico on the foodie blog Blissful Glutton, where photographer and writer Jennifer Zyman posted a rave review and — possibly more important — discovered where pizzaiolo Enrico Liberato had surfaced after being fired (according to owner Riccardo Ullio) from Fritti, in Inman Park.

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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

Overall rating:

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

Children: Absolutely

Parking: Small adjacent lot

Reservations: For communal table in the kitchen

Wheelchair access: Yes

Smoking: No

Noise level: Medium

Patio: No

Takeout: Yes

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

Outstanding

Sets the standard for fine dining in the region.

Excellent

One of the best in the Atlanta area.

Very good

Merits a drive if you're looking for this kind of dining.

Good

A worthy addition to its neighborhood, but food may be hit and miss.

Fair

Food is more miss than hit.

Restaurants that do not meet these criteria may be rated Poor.

You can write your own review here .

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