A few weeks ago, I had a chance to sample the food from the highly anticipated Varasano’s Pizzeria. The pizzeria, whose namesake is Jeff Varasano, is scheduled to open in early to mid-January in the newly built Mezzo building. The restaurant is as anticipated as any other Atlanta hot spot has been, at least in recent memory. Unlike the restaurants recently opened by Jean-Georges or Tom Colicchio, Varasano’s place has been built up almost entirely due to word-of-mouth. While JG and Colicchio were well established chefs by the time they opened in Atlanta, Jeff cut his teeth as a software engineer. Varasano moved to Atlanta in 1998 and quickly noted the dearth of good, let alone acceptable, pie bars. Over the next six-years, he operated in relative obscurity while he studied and honed his new craft.
Varasano went from a culinary nobody to a bonified web superstar in late 2006. As mentioned in almost every article about him, at least one-year prior, he had scripted a thesis-esk masterpiece on everything pizza (located here). Though it sat in relative obscurity for sometime, on September 17, 2006, Boing-Boing.net, one of the best sites around for general information, wrote a bit on Jeff and his work. Two-years later, Atlanta sits on the cusp of culinary delight!
I won’t bother to regurgitate too much more of what has already been posted on Jeff [you'll find links to all those articles at the end of the post], but he has become an expert through experimentation and self-education. The results are impressive. Varasano is in a unique position to succeed. His background as a software engineer, backed with a Yale education (yes that YALE!), has put him in a unique position to to mesh traditional cooking techniques with elements of molecular gastronomy [essentially a culinary mashup term for (Science+Math)+Ingredients=Food]. While he does not have the artistic twinge of someone like Richard Blais [another of my favorite Atlanta Chefs!], Varasono improvises very well.
We arrived at Varasano’s pretty much on time, and there was already a crowd. The atmosphere was as friendly as anyone could possibly expect. I felt almost uncomfortable at how welcoming the hosts were. The crowd was made up of a handful of strangers, some restaurant employees, and the lovely Heather Stokley, Jeff’s partner-in-crime/publicist, with whom I share a love for all things Adult Swim. For the next three-hours, Varasano treated his guests to culinary deliciousness.
Immediately upon entering the kitchen, I took a peak at the much talked about “hacker” oven. Some time ago, Varasano made a brilliant discovery: one of the key factors in cooking a good pie is heat. We aren’t talking about any 500 degree wimpy heat – we’re talking about hand scorching, fire blazing, 800 degree hotness. Unfortunately, home ovens have safety features in place that prevent them from getting anywhere close to the necessary temperature. To get around this, Varasano disabled those features and cooks his pizza using the cleaning cycle. In addition, he has mangled the interior of his oven in such a way that it looks like something that would birth the Tin Man and not ‘za. In addition to a handful of toys, my favorite being his infra red ray gun … er … thermometer, Jeff’s most reliable tool was his hands.
Guests were told a bit of what to expect with regards to ingredients and with regards to the effect the inevitable temperature change inside the oven would have on the pizzas. In addition, we all had a chance to take a peek at the forthcoming menu. This is exactly what a menu should be. It is clear, concise, and well thought out. There are a handful of non-pizza items that will be available; they look very appealing, although nobody in their right mind was prepared to sacrifice stomach space to try them.
Varasano seems to have these tastings down to a science. All the ingredients, including fresh cheeses, vegetables, and some super-secret special concoctions, were laid out neatly. The dough, ready to be rolled, was stacked in Tupperware containers. A handful of other items were pulled out of the refrigerator as they were needed.
I would love to go into detail on each and every item we sampled that night. Memories collide, questions arise, and I am left befuddled as I try to recount each bite from that evening. I rather think that this is the type of thing that a person should experience first hand. However, you do need something to go on.
Varasano’s humor comes through in the form of two pizzas: The Dude and The Chic. As you may guess, the dude pizza is heavy on the meats while the chic tends to lend itself to ones’ lighter sensibilities. The dude pizza was so delicious that I gladly swallowed the black olives served on top! That’s saying something – I do not care for black olives on my pizza. Other classic ingredients found their way onto my plate throughout the evening. These included, but were not limited to, prosciutto, lemon, basil, mozzarella, and sausage. In addition, a handful surprises showed up. Both Polly and I agreed that our favorite was the New Haven Clam, a New England tradition based loosely on a white clam sauce. One enthusiastic fan went so far as to call her bite of New Haven orgasmic! We also enjoyed a red clam pizza and a fantastic calzone filled with meat.
My biggest disappointment of the night was that Jeff was so busy, he had no time to relax and converse. I would have loved the opportunity to pick his brain a bit. He carries himself in such an unassuming way that you cannot help but like the guy. While many Chefs walk around with a arrogance of greatness, Varassano seems to accept his role as a very nice, highly intelligent, very skilled artist. In watching him, I also garnered a few more personality traits. He is a clear perfectionist. I saw him hastily toss some dough into his sink as he was clearly miffed about something. In addition, I heard him make a handful of remarks that displayed his dissatisfaction with some of the dishes. It was all for not, as this was one heck of meal.
This is not to say that the evening was absent faults. However, Varasano’s understanding and strive for excellence easily overshadowed any hick-up. He knows his craft, and he knows it well. The unfortunate reality is that I think he will be unable to live up to the expectations set forth by this. He has been so built up that it is unfair. His pizza is easily the best in the city and it ranks right up there with any pizza I have ever had (and i’ve sampled several from Jeff’s list of best pizza in the US). If you walk in expecting a life changing experience, you may be disappointed. That said, YOU MAY NOT! My biggest questions relate to Jeff’s ability to take his talents out of the home and into the restaurant. They are very different beasts. Having a proper oven (which is on order) will help him a great deal.
So cut the guy some slack and get ready for some great food!
NOTE: Varasano does not charge anyone of his guests for any one of the services provided.