Friday, January 22, 2016

Review: Jerk Oceano (Pizzeria Oceano), Lantana FL

Until July of 2015, the best pizzeria you never heard of was operating from a beach-style shack in overlooked Lantana, Florida. There in the shadow of glitzy neighbor towns like Palm Beach and Delray Beach, Dak Kerprich was churning out thin crust pies from a wood-fired oven to in-the-know locals. 
"The Basic" at Oceano. Click any image to enlarge

After flying under the radar for six years operating as Pizzeria Oceano, Dak changed his restaurant to a Caribbean-theme with an emphasis on fresh seafood, and re-dubbed it Jerk Oceano. The pizzas moved to a new pie take-out spot, Swell Pizza in nearby Delray. (Swell is no longer open, as of January 2016).
Broccoli leaves and kielbasa as toppings

Before and after the change, Oceano is a quirky spot with no phone, no reservations, no sign or any external indication of its identity, and only a few hours advance notice of the day's menu on their website at
No external signs to identify Oceano

Even though the emphasis has changed, pizza still makes an appearance on the menu some nights (at least since Swell closed). We hit the jackpot on a Thursday, and arrived ahead of the 6pm opening time (on weekends, patrons can wait an hour or more for one of the dozen or so tables). 
The small interior and Dak in the kitchen; wood stove in rear

It was a pleasant winter night in South Florida, well-suited to al fresco dining (very limited indoor seating, which seems to go to the regulars). The indoor and restroom have some fun and funky decor.
Menu options on the day of our visit

For our party of three, we choose both pizzas from the menu, a roasted fennel and cornbread appetizer, and an apple-arugula salad. There is also a short but very well-assembled beer and wine list. We chose the $38 Hendry Ranch Zinfandel, which was superb. Notably, the wine mark-up was much less than in most restaurants. 
Cornbread and roasted fennel, with olives and tomatillo

The cornbread dish came first. Its modest size made for three small servings to share, but it was a delightful mix of textures and flavors, all finished in that wood-fired brick oven. I've never been able to coax flavors out of tomatillos like the ones in this dish. A perfect start.

The kitchen kept up the high standards with our apple-arugula salad. The orange mint leaves dominated a little too much, but the dish was still eagerly consumed.
The basic Basic

Even though we had ordered the night's "Basic" pizza that was to include shallots, broccoli leaves, olives, and datil chili oil, Dak's brother Jay explained that first-time visitors get the very basic Basic, which is made with organic California tomato sauce and house-made mozzarella.

The pie was about 16" in diameter, and was cut into six generous slices. It was topped with several large fresh basil leaves, applied post bake. The crust was very thin, crisp, and nearly rigid enough to support the toppings when held in one hand.
Thin, crisp, leopard spotted

Spoiler alert: everything about this pizza - and this entire meal, start to finish - was first rate. But let's focus on the pizza crust, the key element to any pizza. This one is easy to describe but hard to categorize.
Close up of the crumb

In one sense, it was a little bit like a Neapolitan in its flavor, but it was not puffy or thick anywhere. It shared a little in common with a bar pie, but it was lighter and airy. It also reminded me of the minimalist crust at Philly's legendary Tacconelli's.

Like all the best crusts, it had a great flavor all on its own. Dak uses organic domestic wheat, and the dough ferments for 48 hours. Despite its very thin composition, it was ideally balanced to the piquant sauce and modest amounts of cheese. Together with the fresh basil and some olive oil as finishing touches, this was an ideal pie. We devoured it rapidly.
Pizza with broccoli leaves and kielbasa

The second pie came as described on the menu. No red sauce, a bit more cheese, lots of broccoli leaves, and diced kielbasa. It sported the same magnificent crust, and the ingredients again were perfectly balanced. 

I don't typically enjoy broccoli or any wet and heavy vegetables on a pizza, because they disrupt the balance without adding helpful flavors. However, we all relished this creative use of broccoli leaves, which were the right texture and flavor. 
Fairly rigid support for such a thin and airy crust

This is second time I've had kielbasa on a pizza, and it's a winner. Because smoked kielbasa is such a powerful flavor, the smaller diced bits were a better choice than larger or thick slices of meat.
That's Jay, in the baseball cap

Overall, we had a slight preference for the Basic pizza, due to the delicious red sauce. But these were both wonderful pies that left us wondering, can Jerk Oceano challenge Scuola Vecchia as the best pizza in South Florida?
Weirdly funky bathroom decor

We concluded our meal with the chocolate cake, garnished with toasted pine nuts. It was the perfect finish, and its lightness and moderated sweetness maintained the high level that began with our first appetizer. It's very rare that a kitchen executes at such a high level for all courses of a meal. Easily one of the best meals I've had anywhere, any time.
Pizza Geeks at work

Dak's brother Jay is the frontman who seats the customers and takes orders. He explained to us how almost all the dishes are prepared in the brick wood oven, and he encouraged us to come back on a night when the menu includes fresh seafood. "If we cook it that night, it was caught the same morning."
Nearby on the waterfront, a Pelican wishes for pizza

I know this - if I was a local, I'd back back on a frequent basis. I'd gladly endure the quirks of seating, menu, and phoneless approach in order to enjoy the impeccable fare. I'd even eat there on nights with no pizza.

Pizzeria Oceano Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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