A Pie to Make a Pizzaiola Cry

A Pie to Make a Pizzaiola Cry

Settebello’s menu of Neapolitan pizza is so authentic, it’s fully certified. Yes, that’s right – certified.

By Bradley Tuck 11/01/2011

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Put two people in a room and ask them about pizza, and you’ll get three opinions.  For such is the passion that a humble bread crust topped with tomato and cheese can stir, whether it be New York--style, deep-dish, “gourmet” or Neapolitan. It would be hard to argue with those who claim that Neapolitan is the true expression of the genre, but then, this is America. Foods arrive here and are adapted to suit the tastes of the people. (That said, I have to add that as an Englishman, I can find no  excuse for the sorry lumps of waxen mediocrity in the supermarkets here that palm themselves off as cheddar cheese. But as we say over the pond, “That’s not for here.”)  

Back in 1989, there was a little Italian restaurant I used to visit in Soho, London, which had been in business since the ’60s. It had a wood-burning oven, and its pizzas were exceptional. The rounds of dough were spun theatrically in the air by a hirsute young Italian with eyes like coals, hands the size of skillets and forearms like ham hocks. Girls and boys alike would heave their bosoms in breathless admiration as the pizza dough gradually expanded to form the base that would transport their topping of choice to their lips. That was most definitely a Neapolitan pizza, in attitude as much as execution. The pizzaiolo would pop outside for a coffee and a cigarette between almost every pizza. That the pies didn’t taste like an ashtray was a miracle. The only smoke apparent was that from the oven, thankfully, and the crust was both chewy and crisp, depending on which part you were working.

And now, in Pasadena, it’s possible to experience that same authentic Neapolitan pizza. Settebello, the latest outpost of a small restaurant group that started in Henderson, Nevada, recently opened on Colorado Boulevard by South El Molino, between Tender Greens and Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion. I’ll be honest --- I wish they were in a small dark location that could help me transport myself to Naples, in my mind. But I’m willing to shut my eyes, smell the dough from the authentic hand-built Neapolitan wood-burning oven that heats the pizzas to almost 1,000 degrees and cooks them in 90 seconds. That’s even less time than it takes to heat a glutinous blob in the microwave.

Settebello was started by Brad Otton, a former USC football coach who decided that the coach’s life was not for him. Otton, a Mormon, discovered Neapolitan pizza while on a mission in Naples in the early 1990s and, smitten with Italy, decided to bring the crust to the U.S. He trained under a Napolitano pizzailolo, Enzo Coccia, for three months. The pizzas at Settebello are certified by the VPN --- Vera Pizza Napoletana, an organization set up to protect the authenticity of the Neapolitan pizza.. The rules regarding flour, topping and technique are rigorous, and Settebello is one of only 50 or so establishments in the U.S. that have received its seal of approval. In order to pass muster, the dough must be made of 00 grade Superfino flour, and it must be worked only by hand, never battered by a rolling pin. The sauce must be made from San Marzano tomatoes --- considered the world’s best sauce tomatoes --- and the mozzarella must be made of only fresh cow’s milk, with or without water buffalo milk.  The rules also specify that the pizza must then be cooked directly on the cooking surface of a bell-shaped pizza oven, fueled solely by wood. That’s quite a checklist.

A recent visit found the place packed, and the pies flying out of the oven. I started with their Misto, which was basically a blank canvas on which to express myself. A bare pizza round was presented with a plate of Sopressata and Parmigiano chunks, prosciutto di Parma, coppa and artichoke hearts --- a kind of build-your-own pizza. It was a great way of highlighting the quality of the crust. How can something be chewy, crisp and soft at the same time? Smoky bubbles of char lined the edge of the crust.

A Margherita was ordered just to keep things simple. It’s like the martini of pizzas. If you mess this up, you shouldn’t open your doors. The sauce was intriguing. None of that stewed, oregano-laced red sauce that you might get on other pizzas. Instead, a simple paste of San Marzano tomatoes and sea salt. So light, and yet so flavorful, the sauce complimented the smokiness of the crust perfectly. Melted mozzarella added the requisite fat content. All was good with the world.

Just for giggles, I tried the Carbonara pizza --- crushed tomatoes, pancetta, egg, fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano, extra virgin olive oil. It’s like breakfast in a pizza.  I would love to have it with the egg added after, rather than cooked with everything else, so that a creamy yolk could envelope the whole, but it was delicious.

So, overall, I’d say this is a very welcome addition to Pasadena’s dining scene. The prices are really fair, running from $12 to $13.50 for a truly exceptional pizza. Go, share some pizzas, mangia and gesticulate wildly while talking. It’s as close as you’ll get to Naples in Pasadena.

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