Philly still IS a cheesesteak town, no doubt. (Here's a rundown of the best ones in the region.) But very quickly, Philadelphia has become home to several world-class pizza joints. Gennaro's, Nomad Roman, SLiCE, and Pizza Brain join Tacconelli's in offering old-school thin and crisp pies.
|"Beastia" pie at Barbuzzo|
Most of the other newcomers are working in the Neapolitan zone, with authentic pies flash baked at 900 degrees or so, yielding a thin crust that is puffy on the edges, chewy and a little crisp, with lots of leopard spots. Great Neapolitans in Philly include Zavino, Nomad, Pizzeria Vetri and its upscale cousin Osteria, Bufad, and Stella.
On a warm October evening, I visited Barbuzzo (13th Street, near Sansom) to try the highly-regarded Neapolitan style pie. I arrived at 5pm, opening time, and naturally the place was nearly empty. It's a handsome space, long and narrow, with tables and a long bar with seating.
The list of personal-size Neapolitan pies contained some novel choices - but the combinations all seemed to be well thought out. A few of the white pies were intriguing - for example the 'Uovo' pizza with brussel leaves, guanciale, secret white sauce, parmesan, fior di latte, and truffled farm egg - but I was drawn more to those with the conventional tomatoes.
I chose the $16 'Beastia' with San Marzano tomato, fior di latte, hot coppa, wild board sausage, pepperoni, provolone picante and chili flake. I also had a nice blackboard special pumpkin ale draft for $6.
The pizza arrived quickly, and it was a beautiful sight. The three meat toppings were applied (much like the tomatoes and fior di latte cheese) in almost perfect proportion; enough to have some in each bite, but not so much as to throw the pie out of balance. It was indeed spicy from the chili flakes. The pie was served with two tiny jars, one with chili oil and one with dried fresh oregano still on the stem. Very nice touch, but the chili oil was redundant for this spicy pizza.
The crust was a well-executed Neapolitan, thin, crisp yet chewy, and (importantly) not wet or soggy in the center. It had an excellent flavor of its own, detectable even as it served as the tablula rasa for all that artisan stuff riding on top.
In the category of fresh mozz style cheeses, fior di latte is perhaps my favorite. This one was bright white, and unusually stringy. The tomatoes had the full flavor you'd expect, and they were properly seasoned (meaning little or not at all, so that their flavor can best mesh with the other toppings). The three meats were all wonderful, but the hot coppa was my favorite because of the texture it took on in the oven.
The thick yet light cornicione provided a perfect handle for each slice, yet somehow was the weakest part of this pizza. Each bite up to the edge was a near-perfect blend of well-chosen toppings on a superb crust, but the pizza bones here were (relatively) indistinctive. I'm still not sure why - but it's a minor point.
Barbuzzo is adjacent to Zavino on 13th Street, and that area is pretty rich with attractive restaurants and sidewalk cafes. Later that same evening, I came past around 8:30. Barbuzzo, Zavino, and every nearby place was full and spilling over. For a city that once had but one worthy pizza joint, it's now an embarassment of riches to have TWO great pie slingers back to back.
Do I have a favorite between Zavino and Barbuzzo? I do, but it's pointless to pick sides here. Both are so good that I'd go for whichever has the shortest wait for a table. Both also have a lot of other interesting menu items which I've yet to try. Barbuzzo gets a lot of acclaim for its salted caramel budino dessert, a compelling reason for me to return.
Two huge thumbs up for Barbuzzo.