Arguing the virtues of a great pizza is futile — deep-dish vs. thin crust, marinara vs. white, Chicago vs. New York. There is no right answer because when done correctly, they're all wonderful. Pizza is a common denominator in American society. Only its ingredients and preparation style are divisive.
Still, it's difficult to argue with someone who claims the superiority of Neapolitan pizza. The chefs who adhere to century-old recipes from Italy have a leg-up on even their most venerated cousins in New York. No one can dispute that the traditionalists at the source of a worldwide phenomenon certainly got something right from the get-go.
Neapolitan pizza is simple. Doughs, sauces, and thickness may vary, but the cooking style is set in stone — quite literally. To make pizza properly, you have to cook it in a wood- or coal-fired oven.
Talk about pizza with almost any chef in Charleston and the conversation often comes back to EVO. On the strength of pies like the Pork Trifecta and Pistachio Pesto, what began as a farmers market cart in 2005 has now been recognized by the Food Network as a top 50 pizzeria in the country. From the start, their recipe was simple: handmade dough, fresh toppings, and a wood-fired oven.
EVO didn't really break new ground; they simply led a movement back to basics. That inspiration has now spread throughout Charleston, quickly changing the standards by which we judge the humble pizza pie.
Frank Rinaldi talks fast because he has to. Since opening his restaurant, La Tela, in Kiawah's Freshfields Village shopping center, he's produced nearly 300 pizzas a day from his Mugnaini wood-fired oven.
"It's beneficial from a business and culinary perspective to keep it hot, because you can cook more and the pizza tastes better," says Rinaldi, tossing two more oak logs through the contained inferno's arched opening. "You can have the best dough in the world and perfect ingredients, but if you're not cooking it right, everything's shot."
A third generation restaurateur, Rinaldi runs La Tela with his parents, who moved from Connecticut to help him after his graduation from New York's Culinary Institute of America. Inspired by a conversation with renowned chef Giovanni Scappin, the young cook strived to perfect his recipe and process from the start. He makes his own mozzarella, varying water content by its purpose (wetter for insalata caprese, drier for melting on pizza), and uses only Caputo 00 flour, a decision he came to after months of trial and error. Rinaldi also uses a biga (translation from Italian: "old dough"), a pre-fermented starter that adds flavor and body to breads and pizza crust.
On La Tela's menu, the quail egg pizza is a standout. After spreading his dough, Rinaldi coats it with oil, hand-tearing layers of mozzarella and pancetta before sliding the pizza into the oven for two minutes (La Tela keeps its oven over 800°F). Pulled from the fire just long enough to crack a quail egg in the center of each waiting slice, the pizza gets about 30 more seconds of heat before being topped with hand-grated parmesan, romano, and cracked black pepper.
At Mt. Pleasant's Bacco, chef Michael Scognamiglio follows similar rules acquired by visits to Naples and neighboring Gragnano, where Italy's finest flours and pastas are produced. The region first acquired its reputation for pizza in 1889, when Italy's Queen Margherita was served a red, white, and green pizza with tomato, mozzarella, and basil during an official visit.
"I'm a purist when it comes to pizza," admits Scognamiglio, who urges travelers to skip the pizza in Venice and Florence, holding out for the real deal in southern Italy. "To be a true margherita pizza, it's got to be cooked in a wood-burning oven using next-day mozzarella and San Marzano tomatoes."
Bacco features both 9-inch personal pizzas in the traditional style and another Italian lunchtime favorite, panuozzi. Essentially Naples' answer to the sub sandwich, panuozzi use an oblong pizza dough baked in the wood-fired oven for two minutes and then immediately cut open and filled with spicy soppressata, pancetta, and mozzarella.
"It's one of my favorite things to watch cook because it's so fast," says Scognamiglio, who learned the ropes of wood-fired cooking at Al di La. "Two slices of soppressata is definitely enough because it has so much flavor. It's not like one of those sandwiches at Subway where you just stack and load the meat."
Tubs full of local figs, corn, and tomatoes sit within easy reach of the prep station on the glass counter of Daniel Island's Vespa Pizzeria. After working with EVO and helping to open Monza on King Street, chef Dusty Chorvat jumped at the chance to take the helm at his own Mugnaini-designed oven. "They're the best you can get," Chorvat says. "A wood-fired oven imparts magic on food, giving everything a nice, subtle, smoky flavor."
One of Chorvat's favorite tools is a laser thermometer, allowing him to pinpoint hotspots deep in the oven and time each of the seven or so pizzas inside perfectly. Relying heavily on seasonal produce, Chorvat takes advantage of spongy vegetables like eggplants and mushrooms, whose high water content allows the oven to concentrate their flavors as they sear and evaporate. For the summer months, Vespa features pizzas like a prosciutto, parmesan, and fig pie finished with crumbles of blue cheese, arugula by the fistful, and drizzled with local honey.
Downtown, Monza takes a similar whole-foods approach to pizza, making their own mozzarella and utilizing Molino San Felice flour. Unlike many of their peers' pizza ovens, which arrived in parts and required assembly, Monza's beastly oven, designed by California's Wood Stone, had to be lowered into place with a crane. Pies like the Von Trips, featuring house-ground sausage and seasonal greens over tomato sauce and mozzarella, are consistent winners.
Keeping their white oak-fueled oven as hot as 1,000°F, Monza is able to keep up with demand on busy nights without making sacrifices, apart from the sweat and nerves of the busy cooks manning the flames.
Way out in Hollywood, S.C., the Old FireHouse Restaurant may boast the most original wood-fired oven in town. Cloaked in thick layers of concrete and brown paint, the DIY oven originated on Market Street at the now-closed Papillon's Restaurant.
According to Old FireHouse owner Lia Sanders, the oven mysteriously disappeared from downtown and found its way to Hollywood, where her restaurant's previous owner used it for six years. Sanders bought the Old FireHouse a decade ago, converting the pizzeria into a full-service restaurant that utilizes the oven for everything from poached fish to traditional pies.
"We used to eat the pizza here so we knew how good this oven was," Sanders says. "It cooks a pizza in about four or five minutes right by the fire, or 10 to 12 over on the side."
Sanders and her cook, future son-in-law Eric Mamo, keep their oven around 500 °F, significantly cooler than most. That frees up the small kitchen staff to work both the oven and other duties, as well as helping to keep the open kitchen and dining room from heating beyond what the air conditioning can control. "Every night's an adventure," Mamo says. "Learning on a gas, slated oven is simple because the timing is always pretty much the same. With this you've got to change your timing constantly."
The Old FireHouse has garnered acclaim for their refined yet rustic approach. Their pies include the Edisto, a pesto-based pizza with goat cheese and sliced tomatoes alongside a more standard supreme, called the FireChief, which comes with marinara, pepperoni, onion, sausage, green peppers, mushrooms, and black olives. Both have that crispy-but-not-crunchy nature that only a wood-fired oven can produce.
Despite all the extra effort, from cleaning to maintenance to restocking the diminishing wood pile, each chef at a fire-fueled pizzeria speaks only of the cooking method's virtues, rarely harping on its ills. Truth be told, once you grow accustomed to wood-fired pizza, it's hard to be satisfied by anything less.