There is pizza, and then there is pizza.
Over the last century pizza has emerged as one of Americas' favorite foods if its ubiquity (thousands of pizza parlor chains operate in the U.S.) and increasing reverence (the growth of the artisanal pizza parlor) are any indication. As inexpensive luxuries find their elevated place in our uncertain economic climate, pizza is poised (and deserves) its place as a culinary rock star. This moment is especially sweet for foodies who eschew chain restaurants and irreverent meals in favor of seeking out more authentic and artisanal experiences. The latter can be characterized by a deference to the hand-made, a regard for craft, and an appreciation of traditional methods and tools.
So what is the difference between pizza and pizza? Pizza is a fast-food with forgettable crust, flavorless cheese and an emphasis on speed. Pizza on the other hand, is the type of food that can transport you to Naples in a bite, and by the time you've finished your slice you might swear you're on another continent surrounded by your extended Italian family and hundreds of years of tradition. Dedication to craft, tradition and an awareness that something that is being practiced and not merely produced, is pizza.
One restaurant that successfully achieves this artisanal approach is Pizza Lauretano in Bethel, CT. Fresh ingredients, hand-made pies, Napoli traditions, a wood-fired brick oven and a dedication to the craft of pizza-making combine to create pizza after exquisite pizza. Michael Lauretano has been carefully honing his craft and offering pizzas and other satisfying Italian fare for the last five years behind the restaurant's understated façade. It's astonishing to me that more people don't know about Lauretano and its amazing pies. My out of town guests certainly spend at least one meal here, date night at the independent Bethel Cinema a block away is never complete without a Lauretano's detour, and I am almost always manage to meet my monthly quota for a Lauretano Margherita pizza.
Michael Lauretano found himself in Bethel, CT by way of two of the world's pizza capitals, New Haven and Naples. Born and raised in New Haven, CT Lauretano became enamored by the pizza of Frank Pepe's on Wooster Street as a kid and then it was a mid-life career change that brought him back to his pizza roots and inspired him to travel and study in Naples. Seven years ago, Lauretano lived in Naples for four months to learn the craft of pizza making. The traditions he learned there he then applied to his own restaurant and he now practices daily inside his kitchen at Pizza Lauretano. The interior is a welcoming and modern American take on a traditional Naples pizza parlor. Lauretano's inspiration are the Napoli parlors he apprenticed in mixed with a determination "to focus on doing things right in a very orthodox way." Something tells me that "orthodox" isn't a term uttered in most American restaurants let alone pizza parlors.
Lauretano's Neapolitan-style pies begin with Caputo flour imported from Naples as the base for a superlative and delicious dough. The mozzarella is made fresh every day inside Lauretano's as is their simple and perfectly acidic (not sweet) tomato sauce. The restaurant's Renato oven boasts a special clay dome with a high silica content that retains heat at an even and intense 800 degrees. The beamy wood-fired brick oven transforms each pie into 12 inch pizzas that are enough to satisfy one very hungry person or a duo who can manage to agree on Lauretano's toppings.
And if there is one thing that stands out immediately with any of Lauretano's pies, it is the resulting crust. It's light and chewy with a delicate yeasty flavor, a hint of salt and wonderful charred blisters that dot the pies from its brief stint in the intensely hot oven. The crust, dare I say, is a destination in and of itself. The mozzarella, tomato sauce, and toppings are yet another study in simplicity, freshness and most importantly yield an amazing balance of flavors to serve as a perfect foil to the crust.
On a recent night, four of us handily demolished two salads and three pies. The house salad of mixed greens and Gaeta olives was paired with a bright champagne vinaigrette, and the roasted beet salad filled with baby spinach, goat cheese, and toasted pecans was finished with a white balsamic vinaigrette. Simple and perfectly dressed, the salads are made to order and did not disappoint. As for the pizzas, the resounding favorite was a prosciutto and arugula pizza (seen above). This perfection in red, white and green began with a red sauce and mozzarella base, then a smattering of arugula covered by wafer thin strips of prosciutto placed atop the pizza after it emerged from the oven, completed with a drizzle of olive oil. This combination is pretty tough to beat, an elegant balance of textures and flavors and just downright amazing. The white broccoli rabe with garlic took and a roasted sausage & pepper with a red sauce base were also excellent choices. In the dozen or so times I've been to Pizza Lauretano, I almost always order a Margherita because it is difficult to beat the beauty and satisfaction found in a simple pie like this executed so well.
Lauretano's offers specific pizza pairings, all of which I'd recommend, or you can select from a list of toppings and assemble your own pie. But if you are a Lauretano's newbie or a pizza purist I'd recommend the Margherita as a good place to start. This epitome of a traditional Neapolitan pizza is achieved in a simple composition of fresh mozzarella, tomato, basil and extra virgin olive oil. Lauretano's also takes the Margherita one step further with a D.O.C. version (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) which elevates the Margherita to an even higher plane of perfection using Neapolitan-specific ingredients such as Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, made from the milk of water buffalo.
If you want to stray from Lauretano's signature pizzas, the other offerings are also satisfying. Salads, calzones and pasta dishes are made to order. For lunch a list of specials that includes panini sandwiches and half-size Margherita pizzas are also available. For a restaurant known for tradition the only place you'll find much experimentation is with the desserts, which on a recent night were a memorable denouement to our dinner of pizzas. The Tuscan pear tart, chocolate gelato, and hazelnut biscotti were delicious and perfect way to end a meal.
It is pride, dedication and craft that makes Michael Lauretano not just a pizza maker but a pizzaioli and his pies at Pizza Lauretano not just pizza, but pizza.