A scene from the dark ages of Triangle pizza:
"Do you have anything hot?"
"Fresh out of the oven?"
"Everything comes out of the oven."
"I mean out of the oven in the last twenty
minutes ... OK, forget it. I'll have a slice—not reheated."
"Yeah, cold. Reheating messes with the cheese chemistry."
I painfully recall those cadaverous slices—the joyless carb rush, the palate mortified by an animal activity essentially beneath it. Since 2012, a slew of superb Neapolitan pizzerias—Mercato in Carrboro, Pompieri, Toro, and Treforni in Durham—have declared, "Not whatever, bro." Slated to open this fall or winter, Cary's Faulisi and Pittsboro's Capp's should further gild what's fast becoming a golden age.
At a remove from this buzzy, burgeoning scene, Napoli Gourmet Pizza, a Carrboro-based food truck ensconced nightly next to Fitch Lumber, quietly produces the Triangle's purest and best pizza. A circular smear of tomato puree, a few puddles of fior di latte, a flutter of torn basil, an oven soaring to a thousand degrees—these are the brushstrokes of a masterful minimalism.
"We do it the old-fashioned way," says chef and owner Gael Chatelain. "We cut no corners. We go all out and do things properly."
Napoli strictly adheres to the guidelines of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, an organization founded in 1984 to preserve "the true Neapolitan pizza." VPN stipulates a wood-burning oven fired to at least 900 degrees and a cook time of less than ninety seconds. Flour must be "00." Tomatoes must be certified San Marzano. Flour, water, fresh yeast, and sea salt are the only permissible dough ingredients.
Thus self-handcuffed, Napoli produces intricately textural pies that are at once crispy, light, chewy, and oozy. The cornice is delicately puffed and evenly dotted with "leopard spots"—little pocks of char that indicate entirely correct heat and handling. Having recently eaten at Don Antonio, the New York branch of Naples's 115-year-old Pizzeria Starita, I can attest that Napoli's pies are no mere local "best of."
Chatelain is an unlikely skipper of a cherry-red pizza-mobile. He grew up in West Africa, where his father was an aid worker. The family moved to Hillsborough when he was twelve, and he graduated from N.C. State with a computer science degree in 2005. He then blindsided the Fates by decamping to Africa with his wife. The couple settled down—if that's the right phrase—as the owners of a boutique hotel and restaurant in Mali.
When Mali descended into a particularly chaotic civil war, the couple tried to open a similar B and B in Southeast Asia or Central America but couldn't muster the funding. In 2012, they returned to the Triangle to "start a family and figure out what to do." During childhood vacations in Europe, Chatelain registered the museums and cathedrals but it was the Neapolitan pizza that snuck into his soul. Handy to a remarkable degree, he paid $6,900 for a truck that had previously done service as a Cintas uniform-delivery vehicle. The odometer read 225,000 miles, but the innards were functional, and he set about reconfiguring the cargo area.
Tutored by the Internet, he cut out a serving window, reframed the interior with wood and fiberglass, and ran power and plumbing through the walls. Typifying what I would call the Chatelain-esque, he built and installed a 56-inch-diameter cement oven, mounting the igloo-shaped dome on a steel frame and running a stainless-steel chimney through the roof.
The oven, its exterior whimsically tiled with pennies, has become the Napoli icon. A wood-burning inferno is presumably not what a fire marshal likes to see wedged into the rear of a truck, but Chatelain encountered no difficulties. "There's no regulation saying you can't, so apparently you can," he says. In mid-August, the truck becomes an oven in its own right, with temperatures reaching 106 degrees.
Chatelain does sprightly business, selling fifty to eighty pies per night, but esoteric enterprises have their inevitable frustrations. He hates the steam effect of his cardboard boxes. He wishes the six minutes during which his pizza is effectively perfect were an enforceable eating time-limit.
Chatelain cringes and grieves to think that, right across the street, patrons subject their boxed pies to twenty minutes of shopping at Harris Teeter.
"People have preconceptions about pizza, and our pizza is very different," he says. "Some people say it's burned. Some want to order a slice. Some don't understand the price point. But once people try our pizza, these complaints tend to fade."
I half ignore, half make his point by sneaking a glance at the oven. My own pizza is starting to puff, crisp, and bubble. Harris Teeter does not tempt me.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Our Golden Age of Pizza"