A little over a week ago, as I scuttled home from the office, I took an unusual turn down Hemphill Ave. Traffic was thick, and I like to keep moving. So down the side streets I went and as I peeled off of Northside Dr, I noticed that Jaqbo Bakery & Café had a whole new paint job. Something was up, so I pulled over. As I got out of my car and approached the building, a small, solitary word caught my eye: Antico. Jaqbo was no more! I had, completely on accident, stumbled upon the newfound home for Enrico Liberato (and on day freaking one no less).
The story goes like this: Liberato arrived in Atlanta just a few short months ago. Brought in to resurrect the tragically bad pizza that was being served up at Riccardo Ullio’s Fritti, Liberato helped put Fritti back on the map. Some months later, the marriage was over. It’s worth mentioning that I think the ‘za is a tad better since Liberato’s departure. Whatever the reason for the split, word around the campfire was that Liberato had teamed up with a Brooklyn native who got his start in this world back in Naples, Italy. That much was and is verifiably true. So here we stand.
I passed on the opportunity to immediately share my delight for a number of reasons. One of them being that I was confident Antico would remain off the radar for at least a few days. BUZZ … WRONG!!! Within a few short hours, news of the place darn dun blewed up and foodies, pizza passionistas, and bloggers alike have started talking up the place like a trending topic over on twitter. While nearly everyone to write on Antico has painted an idealized picture of halcyon times, in true Foodie Buddha fashion, I can’t say everything is peachy. That’s not to say that this chat of Antico Pizza will approach any semblance of the tongue lashings I’ve been known to hand out. If you decide not to continue with this post, take this one opinion with you: this pizza is really tasty.
Tucked in at the corner of Hemphill and Ethel, the place is easy to miss. However, the building has been redone and the exterior now sports a muted yellow outfit complete with some quaint foliage. Inside, the first thing you’ll probably take in is a glass encased room with a huge table in the middle and several kitchen stations on the side. If you gaze just beyond the table you’ll see a wide doorway which will give you a pretty good scope of the massive back room and the imported ovens (more on them in a bit). The rest of the space houses the register/prep forum, a desert display, a fridge with cook at home pies, and a series of much debated and discussed cartoon cells that depict a boy and his slice.
The stone walls, painted on floors, and various objet d’arts give the place its finishing touches as a casual slice of authentic pizza eating. And this is where the crux of the pizza begins … not in the quality of the ingredients (high), standards of execution, or friendliness of pizzaiola Luca Varuni and the rest of the gang. Rather, it is as much about where you eat the food as it is what goes in your mouth. The place has been built around off-premise consumption. However, with the surge of attention in the early weeks, they have now opened up the aforementioned wood table for stand-up straight eating. Previously, the table functioned as a dough station, so while I’m sad to see that go away … the change was necessary. Time will tell if the staff will continue to work in the same space with the eager beavers. Hidden around in the back room is a reservations only table that allows you to dine and watch. It is purportedly in high demand.
Under alternative circumstances, I would feel totally comfortable attributing my three stops inside of 7-days to the quality of the food. It’s certainly worth that. However, the truth of the matter is that this reasoning was based in the “likely experience of the whole.” Because of the limited “seating” capacity, the majority of pizzas produced at Antico head straight out the door. It is a point that is rarely taken to its logical conclusion, and I needed that requisite experience. To compare a pizza consumed after delivery, self-made or not, to something fresh out the oven seems a bit disingenuous.
Truth be told, when secured in a box and transported for any discernable amount of time, the pizza just goes to mush. That is the unfortunate reality of any pizza of this ilk, and it holds true for every pizza put out by any of the three pizzerias now in the middle of this ridiculously dubbed “pizza war.” In fact, the Diavaola, the pizza I took back to the office, was so wet at consumption junction that I had to roll it from tip to tail rather than fold it down the middle. Keep in mind, I did my best Lewis Hamilton and made the trip from Antico Pizza in 6m48s (I timed it!). I would have a hard time thinking most people who take food out from Antico will be able to replicate the short drive. Even when consumed on site, these pies are messy. As much as I hate to say it, this may be a turn off for those people hell bent on the impossible. But … that doesn’t mean these pies aren’t worth talking about.
My eye-ball isn’t as reliable as it should be, but I think the pies come in around 14-inches. Whatever the case, the pizzas are fairly expensive relative to some other city alternatives. Forget pineapple, feta cheese, and the like. These options are 100% Italian to their core.
It seems that the focus for people these days is the crust. Antico’s iteration is certainly very very good, but it doesn’t reign supreme for me. I prefer the sour dough starter of the other place as well as the consistency of the char found there. At Antico, I have found the dough to be a bit on the gummy side and the char a bit too deep at times. The delivery seems deliberate and because of that, you have to respect the methodology. Intent aside, the crust is excellent but not without fault.
As with a number of true Neapolitan pizzas, the sauce can get a little watery at times. I also find it a bit on the bland side when that happens. That lends itself well to some of the toping rich options, but if you get the straight up margherita, you may take notice.
Where Antico seems to stand ahead of the rest is in the toppings. The quality of the meats, the cheeses, and the herbs, are at times, jaw droppingly good. A few of them could be improved upon marginally, but let’s not get ridiculous. Take for example the Diavaola … topped with spicy sopressata, pepperonata, and bufala … a bite, even when soggy, could really clear your nose up. Moreover, they made this a spicy pizza with obtainable flavor. As a glutton for punishment in the spice department, it is nice to see that balance. If you aren’t in the know with the Italian ingredients, feel free to ask, whoever is behind the register is likely to help you through the decision.
It’s amazing that a place with such limited customer interaction has already drawn such rave reviews for their service. Look, there isn’t a single thing to complain about – they are friendly and proficient, but it’s quite easy to make it out of the place without talking to anyone other than the dude behind the register. Let’s not get over board. If however, you do manage to strike up Luca or owner Giovanni Di Palma, you’ll find them as boisterous and happy. I heard someone mumble about them being a bit too foolhardy, but I’ve never seen anything approaching that.
Speaking of Di Palma, it’s worth noting that this guy has some serious credentials. I actually had a few of my cronies dig up some dirt on the place, and much of that same information was artfully dug up and recapped by Bill Addison over on Atlanta Magazine (article link below). Di Palma, and Antico by extension, have more certifications and notations than many people probably even knew existed. To complete the experience, Di Palma imported three of the famed Acunto ovens from Naples and installed them himself (with the help of some friendly earth walkers). In addition Liberato, there is a desert baker on the who produces housemade cannolis. Not being a sweets guy, I haven’t sampled them (or the calzoni for that matter).
Rumors of wait times have been rampant, I am unable to confirm them as I have yet to walk in any later than 5:30 in the pm. Still, the place will shut down as soon as they run out of dough, so I wouldn’t recommend that you wait until late to sneak in.
The three musketeers of Varuni, Di Palma, and Liberato have dropped a gauntlet. Despite misinformation, this is the first true Napoletana pizza joint in town. To elaborate: Varasano’s is a slightly hybridized version and Fritti incorporates a number of non-traditional ingredients. As contentious as that statement might sound … it’s actually meant to be a diffusion tactic. This ridiculous debate seems to imply that it’s one place or the other. While I’m still partial to the sour dough, all three of these places can and should be able to co-exist.
To refocus, Di Palma seems to have built this place in the hopes of making it destination worthy while maintaining an underground foodie appeal and a different type of experience than what is offered elsewhere. It seems headed down that path. If someone else wants to call it perfection, I wouldn’t be surprised. As I see it, these are damn good pizzas and Antico is a great addition to the neighborhood.
Atlanta Foodies on Antico Pizza Napoletana
- The Food Abides on Antico Pizza (10.01.09)
- Covered Dish on Antico Pizza (09.30.09)
- Green Olive Media On Antico Pizza (09.30.09)
- The Blissful Glutton on Antico Pizza (09.28.09)