Say the word "pizza," and it's easy to start a controversy.
Who doesn't have strong opinions about the stuff? From crisp, thin-crust New York-style pies to gooey Chicago deep-dish pizza, to California-style pizzas topped with unconventional gourmet goodies, there's plenty to eat and plenty to talk about.
Honestly, it's a debate I hope is never settled, because I'm having too much fun tasting my way through the various perspectives. This is "research" I can really delve into.
But bring Italians into the conversation, and you'll get a very specific viewpoint on what constitutes proper pizza — that is, Neapolitan pizza, with its thin, tender, crisp crust — right down to minute details about the caliber of ingredients (imported San Marzano tomatoes, 00-grade flour, creamy mozzarella di bufala) and the cooking method (dough that's hand-kneaded or mixed at a low speed, a wood-fired oven hot enough to bake it within about 90 seconds). In fact, there's a trade organization based in Naples that sets the standards for creating an authentic traditional pie, the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana.
Does certification from the VPN guarantee that a restaurant will have good pizza? That's what I wondered — with skepticism — the first time I visited Pomo Pizzeria Napoletana, a sleek, seven-month-old spot at the Borgata that touts its VPN credentials as the first in the Valley.
To me, the proof is in the pudding (er, pizza) and not on a piece of paper, although I have to confess: With their blistered, tender crusts that required a knife and fork to eat them, Pomo's pies were consistently scrumptious.
What struck me about this rustic pizza — the result of a very disciplined and detailed cooking process, baked in a 6,000-pound, tile-covered oven hand-built by a third-generation craftsman — were the human components, like the evidence of hands that formed the dough into slightly less-than-perfect rounds, or the asymmetrical scattering of toppings on the pies. I let myself forget about the precision of Neapolitan tradition and simply enjoy the view of the open kitchen, where they're basically playing with fire to make my dinner.
My Regina Margherita pizza was so delicate in the middle that the dough was barely discernible in the first couple of bites, softened by a thin layer of light, sweet, ripe-tasting tomato sauce that made me swoon. Usually, I'm tempted by garlicky white pizzas, but the red sauce at Pomo was definitely the winner. Topped with milky fior di latte mozzarella, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, and a few pieces of fresh basil, the pie was greater than the sum of its parts.
Better yet was the Diavola, which had the addition of salame piccante, a sort of spicy Italian pepperoni that was browned and crispy around the edges from the 950-degree oven.
Sautéed mushrooms added earthy appeal to the Pomo, along with sweet onions, roasted peppers, and Italian sausage. Meanwhile, the Capricciosa was salty in a pleasant way, thanks to the combination of Gaeta olives and ham, as well as artichoke hearts and sautéed mushrooms.
Bianca, a white pizza crowned with fior di latte mozzarella, 18-month-aged prosciutto, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, was simple but balanced, the savory toppings complementing the slight smokiness of the crust. But the Donna Rosa fell somewhat short. Although it wasn't offensive, it could've used a bolder pesto sauce beneath those blobs of melted mozzarella. As it was, the acidity of cherry tomatoes and strong smokiness of plump roasted shrimp entirely overwhelmed the mild basil flavor. (As of press time, the owner of Pomo says the Donna Rosa will be removed the menu.)
The Vesuvio pizza fritta — that is, fried pizza — resembled a large calzone, although not as dense. It wasn't too crispy, just golden and slightly puffy, oozing with tomato sauce, mozzarella, provola cheese, and salame piccante. I wouldn't choose one of these over a regular pizza here, but if you're sharing dinner with some friends, try a pizza fritta in addition to a traditional pie.
A handful of appetizers helped my friends and me gear up for the impending pizza onslaught, showing us just how tasty some of the ingredients were in their unbaked state. Case in point: the Caprese, a traditional combo of mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes served nearly plain, with just a dash of sea salt and faintly grassy extra virgin olive oil to enhance the cool creamy cheese. Slices of soft bread were a welcome accompaniment.
Paper-thin shavings of salty bresaola (dried beef), Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a pile of arugula were dazzling with a light lemon vinaigrette, while the affetati misti was a straightforward plate of nibbles for meat lovers, with prosciutto, ham, bresaola, Pecorino Romano, and olives. Portions were large enough for a few people to indulge.
I'd also suggest sharing dessert, if you think you've had one too many slices of pizza (an easy thing to do here). When faced with tiramisu this good — dense with mascarpone and espresso-drenched ladyfingers — you'll be eager to rally for a few bites. And skip the chocolate-drizzled cream puffs (which were cold from the fridge, not ethereal, as they should've been) in favor of some semifreddo di mandorle, a light, silky, "half-frozen" mousse coated with crumbled pistachios.
So about that VPN certification — does it really make a difference?
Who knows? I'd rather credit the culinary talents of the pizzaiolo (pizza makers) than a lengthy list of rules and regulations. Surely there's some kind of magic in making a good pizza that goes beyond an elaborate recipe, right? Isn't there an alchemy that transforms flour, water, salt, and yeast into a fragile, chewy crust?
I'd call that special ingredient "soul," and I don't think the VPN can regulate that.