Review: Muss & Turner’s owners put own stamp of authenticity on pizza in Smyrna

Two pizzas that show off the excellent ratio of sauce to toppings to crust at MTH Pizza are Bianca #5 (left) and the Margherita. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

The Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana polices true Neapolitan pizza against impostors who would dare to mess with ingredients, production method, even the 35-centimeter diameter limit and then have the gall to call it — gasp! — authentic.

Italy’s gift to the world is just as contentious in this country. Select cities claim bragging rights to crust, super-size slices or as originators of topping combinations. And everyone has an opinion about who makes the best pizza in town. In Atlanta, the argument can renew anew now that the team behind Muss & Turner’s and Local Three has joined the local pie wars with MTH Pizza.

Unsukay Concepts partners Ryan Turner, Todd Mussman and Chris Hall — the M, T and H behind the name — are making a solid case for their pizza joint that sits in the same Smyrna mixed-use development that’s home to Muss & Turner’s.

"I had a really clear vision for the crust that I wanted," Hall told the AJC when the restaurant debuted in October. "To me, with Neapolitan everything slides off, and it's too thin. New York is almost too cracker-like. I wanted the crust to have a little bend, so when you fold it over, the toppings don't slide off."

They nailed the crust, which starts with a dough made from King Arthur high protein bread flour and fermented 72 hours. A stretchable, sturdy dough is only part of the equation. Execution is another. And here, they are baking their 16-inch pies in the Renato brick oven left behind when former occupant Little Azio shuttered. The result deftly straddles the chewy-crispy line. It can be a knife and fork experience on old-school metal pizza plates (utensils are casually placed in canisters on each table — along with a roll of paper towels), but this pie is perfect for folding.

MTH Pizza’s pies include the Jimmy Two Times (left), with tomato, fennel sausage, finocchiona and mozzarella; and the Hell Boy, with tomato, garlic, ‘nduja, Calabrian chile and basil. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

The ratio of sauce to toppings to crust is excellent. If a margherita is the litmus test, this one passes. The Funghi is laden with meaty mushrooms. The Bianca #5 is as cheesy as you could hope for. Clammed if You Do is for the seafood lover in you. The Hell Boy is a hell yeah for anyone who likes the warm chile heat of ‘nduja, a spreadable pork salume.

There’s one exception: the Gourdo. That combination of butternut squash, prosciutto, cipollini onions, goat cheese and a finish of fresh arugula is too heavy for the crust to support, and the pie collapses from sogginess.

The Pastrami on Pie, which may make pizza purists bristle, would taste exactly like a pastrami sandwich if the kitchen weren’t so enthusiastic to crown it with dab after dab of spicy brown mustard.

MTH Pizza’s 16-inch pies are baked in a Renato brick oven. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

I applaud their decision to offer only one size pie and nothing by the slice, especially if consistency is what they’re after. Every pie I tried offered some blistering on top and charring underneath. I like the restraint, too — a mere 10 pizzas, half labeled “classics,” half “creations.” And the high-quality ingredients you’d expect from fine-dining industry vets. The owners do, however, come off sounding like curmudgeons for not allowing guests to make topping substitutions (although you can take toppings off a pie). Soon, you may be able to choose your own pizza adventure, according to Hall. Meantime: You don’t like it? Go to Pizza Hut.

Actually, Pizza Hut happens to be where Hall worked as a teenager. If that chain pizzeria were known for a specialty salad, I have no doubt that he'd create a riff in jokey homage to his first employer. (After all, Hall is the same Waffle House fanboy who put a dish on the Local Three menu in honor of that 24-hour diner.) Instead, salads at MTH reflect his and Mussman's cheffy adulthoods, the cheffiest being Everybody Calls Me Giorgio, an homage to Daft Punk and its song that references Italian disco and electronic music pioneer Giovanni Giorgio Moroder. The deep sweetness of preserved tomatoes and the crunchy texture of baked chickpeas make every bite interesting in this mélange of sweet gem lettuce, pepperoncini, olives, mozzarella and red onions. Another hit of acid would make the dressing more balanced, though.

A salad at MTH Pizza named Everybody Calls Me Giorgio is an homage to Daft Punk and its song that references Italian disco and electronic music pioneer Giovanni Giorgio Moroder. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

Every starter here comes with a chef’s touch. Roasted broccoli and cauliflower get flecked with chiles, sweetened with sultana raisins and showered with breadcrumbs; all they need is more time roasting. A savory-sweet ensemble of creamy burrata, marinated olives and fig preserves served with wedges of naked baked crust is a fine pick when you walk in hangry and need something substantial in seconds.

Although absolutely divine, the oven-roasted cannellini beans is also a head-scratching starter on a menu this concise. I haven’t figured out the audience for this hearty Italian-style cassoulet served in a cast-iron skillet, particularly since pepperoni makes it off-limits to vegetarians, unless they know that they can ask to hold it.

Other aspects that give MTH character can be head-scratching if you’re not in the know. From the menu to the ’80s playlist to the murals on the walls – there are plenty of references to pop culture as well as Unsukay’s company culture. Those can be playful, but at times, they lose meaning. As with all Unsukay restaurants, the price of every menu item ends in a 3, but some servers can’t fully explain why (Three stands for its three-legged stool philosophy; that hospitality, a clean, comfortable atmosphere and the best ingredients are the foundation for restaurant success. Without those pillars, the stool won’t stand.) although they are plenty adept at taking orders and running hot pies to patrons.

Maybe I just need to chill with a bottle from the reserve wine list named for ardent Unsukay supporter Jimmy P. Actually, I’m content with the tight, Italian-focused by-the-glass list, especially the house red. A medium-bodied, fruity number from Abruzzo, it’s both serviceable and affordable. The five beers available, all canned or bottled, should still get a seal of approval from drinkers of big name domestics, local craft brews and international specialty labels.

MTH Pizza won’t get a seal of approval from the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, but this casual pizza parlor can still claim to be authentic. In fact, it’s as authentically Muss, Turner and Hall as it gets.

MTH PIZZA

Overall rating: 3 of 4 stars (excellent)

Food: pizza

Service: fast and friendly

Best dishes: Roasted Broccoli & Cauliflower; Everybody Calls Me Giorgio salad; Pizzas: Margherita, Funghi, Bianca #5, Clammed if You Do, Jimmy Two Times, the Hell Boy

Vegetarian selections: Roasted Broccoli & Cauliflower, Burrata di Bufala, Georgia Apples & Arugula salad; Pizzas: Margherita, Funghi, Bianca #5, We Say Potato, They Say Patata (other pizzas contain animal products, although customers can subtract toppings on any pizza)

Price range: $$-$$$

Credit cards: all major credit cards

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 5-9 p.m. Sundays

Children: yes

Parking: free parking lot (and complimentary valet 5:30 p.m.-close Tuesdays-Saturdays)

MARTA station: none

Reservations: not accepted

Wheelchair access: yes

Noise level: average

Patio: yes

Takeout: yes

Address, phone: 1675 Cumberland Parkway SE, Smyrna. 678-424-1333

Website: mthpizza.com

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