Review: Nina & Rafi a major triumph for pizza savant from New Jersey

The Meat Me in Detroit pizza at Nina & Rafi is an enjoyable way to splurge on pizza night. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

Atlanta’s most popular pizza maker grew up spending summers on the central Jersey shore with his grandma.

To make money, he worked at his Uncle David’s pizzeria in Red Bank, New Jersey, a place called Franciosi’s, where he rolled out his first pie around the age of 12 or 13. Truth be told, he didn’t love the work, which required him to labor next to a scorching hot oven for 60 to 70 hours a week. “It was always a job to fall back on, but it was always a job I kinda fought,” he says.

And yet, over time, he got good at it. Damn good.

His name is Anthony Spina, and he's the inventor of O4W Pizza's famous Grandma Pie, topped with red sauce, house-made mozzarella, salty pecorino, a scattering of basil and not much else, and baked in a heavy square pan that transforms the crust into a heavenly crackle. If you've followed the story, you know the city got hooked on the masterful Grandma Pie virtually the second Spina started hawking it at a counter-service joint beside the Beltline's Eastside Trail at Irwin Street.

Nina & Rafi executive chef Anthony Spina and owner Billy Streck. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL

This was 2015. A year and a half later, dude had the audacity to move his operation to Duluth. Only recently did he return to his old hood in the Old Fourth Ward, with a spiffy new spot called Nina & Rafi, bankrolled by restaurateur Billy Streck and designed by Smith Hanes Studio. (The name pays tribute to Streck's 91-year-old Sicilian-American grandmother, Nina, and Spina's No. 1 culinary influence, his late great-grandmother, Rafi.)

The bad news? Spina opted not to bring the Grandma Pie with him.

The good news? He’s outdone himself with a pan pie called the Detroit Red Top, another study in simplicity distinguished by its singular edge.

Nina & Rafi’s Margherita in Detroit is a Detroit pie made as the Super Margherita. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL

Why’s this thick-crust pan pie such a knockout? (It’s not the dough. Forget the dough!) It’s the way the secret cheese blend spills over the crust and welds itself to the side to evince a layer of dark-brown, extra-chewy cheesiness. Some liken it to Pizza Hut’s pan style; others compare it to a Parmesan crisp. I call this stunner the second miracle of the Old Fourth Ward: Holy mother of Motor City!

Pizza lovers: Make a note of the Detroit. It may be one of the most important tidbits of information you’ll get in a lifetime. And now, hear me out while I describe the other reasons why I love Nina & Rafi, plus a few areas that could use a little improvement.

Eggplant Parmesan is one of the ways that Nina & Rafi impresses. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

Quite honestly, if Nina & Rafi’s round, Jersey-style pies were a tad crispier on the bottom, if the salads and cocktails exhibited the same finesse as the meatballs and eggplant Parmesan, this newcomer would be the recipient of three stars from the AJC, rather than the two I’m awarding today. It was so close, y’all.

The Corsica Spritz is among the cocktails offered at Nina & Rafi. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

When I wasn’t gasping at the handsome silver tin ceiling, I was lusting over the fine collection of amari to the right side of the bar. Alas, the Negroni RX cocktail (sour-cherry gin, Campari, vermouth, orange-flower water and Distilleria Varnelli’s Amaro dell’Erborista) was way too sweet, boozy and medicinal for me. The Winter Breeze (Montenegro amaro, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, basil and lime) was a little less overpowering, but I probably wouldn’t order it again. On the upside, the libation I could sip all day would be the effervescent Corsica Spritz, made with prosecco, light amari, a whisper of fino sherry, some basil and a thyme sprig for garnish.

The mostly Italian wine list is fun and easy to navigate, but sometimes with pizza, you just want beer. (For me, that’s a Creature Comforts Classic City lager or a Peroni, both served on tap.)

Pizzas take at least 20 minutes to bake, so you may need a nosh.

What’s different about the meatballs with marinara appetizer at Nina & Rafi? It might just be the small amount of chopped raisins in them. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

A pair of jumbo beef meatballs are sliced in two, splashed with marinara, and delicious in every way. Spina tells me it’s the tiny amount of chopped raisins mixed into the ground Angus that makes them so stellar. I also like the rice balls, fashioned from risotto, pecorino and mozzarella, though when you chew into them, they are kinda bland at the center.

The Nina & Rafi Rice Balls starter is made with risotto, pecorino and mozzarella. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL

Skip the Caesar (I couldn't discern a bit of garlic or anchovy in the tangy white dressing) and the panzanella (too much bread, not enough balsamic vinaigrette) and go for the pizzeria salad (greens, cherry tomatoes, red onion, kalamatas, chickpeas, croutons and the perfect amount of vinaigrette).

If you want a salad at Nina & Rafi, the pizzeria salad is the way to go. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

While slices are served till 4 p.m. each day, they pale in comparison to an actual pie. Skip them entirely, and get yourself a full-size. You’ll probably devour more than you think; if not, the staff is always sweet about boxing up leftovers. Except on the rare occasion the Grandma Pie is offered as a special, a Super Margherita is the next best substitute, a solid effort, though a thinner, crispier crust would have elevated it mightily. The So Jersey pie (sausage, hot cherry peppers, potato, onion) sounded good but disappointed.

I’m eager to try the Margherita in Detroit — could be the best of both worlds. And the Old Fashion, advertised as a square thin crust with plum tomato sauce, house-made mozz and fresh garlic. For now I can endorse the Meat Me in Detroit (topped with pepperoni plus spicy capicola and peppery soppressata) 1,000 percent. You don’t really need all that salty salumi, but on pizza night, who cares?

The interior of Nina & Rafi. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

When it comes to sweets, the running joke among Nina & Rafi’s servers seems to be, “We’d offer you dessert, but we don’t have any.” Spina tells me he’s “still feeling it out” when it comes to dolci. I’m fine with that, but I wonder what Nina and Rafi would say. (Probably, “Get the hell out of here, kiddo. You gotta be stuffed already.”)

The Anthony Spina story is remarkable. He started real small in Atlanta and got a real big following really quick. “The only secret is you gotta have a lot of patience,” he says of his process. Without ever tasting an actual Detroit pie, he developed his own version and knocked it outta the park.

Arrivederci, Grandma. Detroit is in da house.

Nina & Rafi’s

Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)

Food: world-class pizza; lusty red-sauce classics

Service: mostly superb in the main room; bar can be iffy when the place is busy

Best dishes: Meatballs. Pizzeria salad. Detroit Red Top pizza. Eggplant Parmesan. Corsica Spritz cocktail.

Vegetarian selections: Rice balls. Bruschetta. Cheesy Bread. Grilled artichokes. Eggplant Parmesan. Numerous salads and pizzas, including the signature Old Fashion, Cheese Pie, White Pie, Super Margherita, and Detroit Red Top. Plus, Just the Veg, Margherita in Detroit, Vegan Fresh Tomato Pie.

Price range: $$-$$$

Credit cards: all major credit cards

Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight every day

Children: yes

Parking: free street parking nearby; paid parking lot at Krog and Irwin; paid deck at Studioplex on Auburn Avenue

MARTA station: King Memorial

Reservations: no

Wheelchair access: yes

Noise level: moderate

Patio: yes; year-round and by the Beltline

Takeout: yes

Address, phone: 661 Auburn Ave., Atlanta. 404-549-8997


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