Classic Italian Pizza, Lake Country Village Shopping Center, 1030 East Baseline, Suite 156, Tempe, 480-345-8681. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; closed Monday.
The world is divided between those who can live on pizza alone and those who also require other foods. Pizza is the one comfort food that combines all the essential food groups. Think of it as a flat-baked United Nations of bread, meat, dairy and veggies -- all working together to create a harmonious and satisfying union. And I know just who should be the secretary general: Halim Nefic.
He is the chef and proprietor of Classic Italian Pizza -- and one of the more impressive pizza makers in the Valley. His small restaurant in Tempe produces extraordinarily thin-crust pizzas that rival anything you'd find at Pizzeria Bianco. From appetizer to dessert, this is food made with a commitment to using only the freshest ingredients. Whenever possible, he makes everything from scratch: tomato sauce, dough, mozzarella cheese and sausage. Better yet, the menu prices are bargains.
The room is cozy, with only nine dining tables and a small bar. It's pleasant to sit this close to the kitchen, staring into the glowing wood-burning oven and watching the lazy layers of smoke float above the baking pizzas. Families feel welcomed and no one wears a necktie. The only effort toward creating any sort of ambiance comes from small candles, white tablecloths, a couple posters on the walls and low-key European pop music. Diners can sip a glass of wine or European beer, chat with friends, nibble on breadsticks and never feel rushed to depart. It's comfortable and there is plenty of parking. The result is the type of hip casual eatery that everyone wishes was in their neighborhood.
Originally from Sarajevo, Nefic speaks with the same sweetness and vocal mannerisms as Latka, Andy Kaufman's character on the television series Taxi. A virtual whirlwind of motion, the only time he pauses is when he's searching his memory for the proper word in English. Armed with wooden pizza peel and starched white apron, Nefic moves between the wood-fired forno oven and tables, keeping a watchful eye on everything.
The smartest thing Nefic does is keep the menu limited. Too many restaurants try to do too much and end up doing too little. People visit this eatery for just one thing: pizza. And not just any old pizza. The house has wisely focused on offering an ultra-thin-crust 12-incher with some 13 variations. One size fits all. Each pizza makes a nice meal for two, but the emphasis is on quality, not quantity. This could have been the place Yogi Berra was thinking of when he said, "You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I'm not hungry enough to eat six."
Another important factor in the culinary work here is the flavor boost that comes from using the purest ingredients. The dough is made daily using fresh yeast and no preservatives. Left to rise, part of the dough will be sliced later into soft, thick breadsticks that take on a wonderful smoky flavor from the traditional wood-stoked oven. The basket of bread is also an appetizer, served with a plate daubed with circles of extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar and crushed black pepper. The rest of the dough becomes pizza crust destined for a heated encounter with some sort of topping.
Nefic begins his mild tomato sauce with whole tomatoes that have never seen the inside of a can. The fresh tomatoes are crushed and seasoned, forming the sauce that ties a pizza together with its ingredients. The mozzarella is made in the kitchen and is smooth and creamy. Fresh mozzarella is nothing like the vacuum-sealed tough white ball you buy at Safeway. Fanatics insist it be eaten the same day it's made. Novice eaters will find that fresh mozzarella seems almost tasteless, but its secret is its knack for enhancing the flavors surrounding it.
You can't get any more basic than the prosciutto pizza: cheese, red sauce and salty, paper-thin Italian prosciutto. Be sure to let them add the fresh basil. These simple flavors are balanced and intense. The four-cheese pizza is lots of fun. It's a white pizza, using olive oil rather than the red sauce to meld the fresh mozzarella, Parmesan, ricotta and feta cheeses together. It's a good marriage made in an oven.
The pizza Margherita takes its name from a queen of Italy and her visit to Naples in 1889. The dish combines tomato with fresh mozzarella cheese and basil to evoke the red, white and green of the tricolored Italian flag. For a dish supposedly fit for a queen, the flourish of four solitary basil leaves on our pizza lacked the power to flavor every piece. It's pretty to look at, but too understated.
The colorful Four Seasons pizza is the most impressive. Divided into four sections, the pizza offers imported Italian prosciutto, wood-roasted mushrooms, and slices of fresh tomatoes sprinkled with Parmesan cheese, black olives and artichoke hearts. Although it has slivers of ham, it is the vegetables that show off here in a celebration of seasonal harvest flavors.
The more complicated pizzas are less successful. The Capricciosa is a cacophony of ham, Toscano salami, mushrooms, slices of fresh tomatoes sprinkled with Parmesan cheese, black olives, artichoke hearts, red bell pepper and pepperoncini. While it looks more substantial, ultimately less would be more.
The pizzas are also available to go, along with the raw, house-made ingredients. If you have a pizza stone in your oven at home, you can pick up the raw dough, fresh mozzarella cheese and Italian or beef sausage.
For a different spin on the calzone, sample the beef sausage selection. Hot out of the oven, it looks immense. The turnoverlike crust is beautifully browned and, once sliced open, reveals an airy grandeur that comes from the oh-so-delicate rising of the dough in the oven. Inside is a filling of homemade beef sausage, mushrooms, onions, tomato sauce and cheese. As a meal, the calzone is a light bite and not the usual heavy cannonball of ricotta and dough.
While Nefic is zealous about pizza, he occasionally branches out to one other category of Italian food: lasagna. But it's only available as a catering item. The spinach lasagna serves 12 and is a bargain at $59. Perhaps if enough people start dining at his restaurant, he'll offer single servings as a once-a-week special.
The salads here are just okay. The best is the insalata Caprese. The chunks of house-made mozzarella cheese are creamy and fresh and doused with a nice olive oil, fresh basil and cracked pepper, but the tomatoes are just marginal. It's the same story at virtually all Valley restaurants: Good tomatoes are rare, and one can go months before finding another one. Future historians will measure the descent of American civilization by the ever-declining quality of tomatoes. The bland mozzarella should make the tomato flavor sing like Pavarotti, but we must be content only to enjoy the spicy cracked pepper seasoning with the cheese.
The gourmet salad cleans out the crisper section of the restaurant's icebox. A butter lettuce base is heaped with tomatoes, carrots, sweet corn, ricotta cheese, kalamata olives, hard-boiled eggs, radicchio, cucumbers and pepperoncini. Accompanied with chopsticklike Italian grissini (crunchy twisted breadsticks), it is a hefty offering without much subtlety.
Yet Nefic offers a delectable Italian vinaigrette. Our server mentioned how she had suggested that Nefic might want to add a trendier dressing, like a raspberry vinaigrette, to the menu. To the chef's credit, his response was: "I'll think about it." He's a purist who doesn't feel the need to jump onto dubious trends.
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Two desserts are listed. We requested the intriguing-sounding tufahija -- a Mediterranean twist on the baked apple. Soon Nefic was standing at our table, sadly explaining it wasn't available. He went on to describe the dish, how he slowly bakes the apple for seven hours, stuffs it with nuts, raisins "and a little lemon zest," and then serves it warm over crème anglaise. "It's very popular throughout Europe," he sighed, "but here, no." He said he sold only two of the first 50 he made.
The alternate dessert, a toothsome tiramisu, also came with a brief cooking lesson. Nefic, who loves to talk food with patrons, is passionate about his signature dessert. "Strong espresso is required," he said, along with good cognac and fine amaretto to flavor the alternating layers of ladyfingers and mascarpone cream cheese. The resulting sweet is light and fluffy, powerfully imbued with cognac and almond flavors. If you're going to have only one dessert on your menu, this is a solid choice.
Nefic is in good company with his pizza fanaticism. In Naples, there is a group of pizza makers who have formed The True Neapolitan Pizza Association. These chefs have compiled a revolutionary list of commandments for pizza lovers. They insist that the crust be made only with flour, natural yeast, salt and water. No fats are allowed. The diameter of a pizza must never exceed 12 inches. Ingredients should be simple. (A spicy barbecued-chicken topping would be sacrilege!) They believe that pizzas must be cooked directly on the floor of a wood-fired oven.
At Classic Italian Pizza, all of this comes without the lines and crowds of posher joints. A reason for that is its location in the distant corner of a shopping center. Even with the best directions, most people struggle to find it. My advice is to drive to the shopping center and simply follow your nose to the aromatic smoke from Nefic's forno.