Brace yourselves, downtowners: The best pizza in Durham is way out on Highway 54.
Dave Diggins is a pizza lifer. It's a true calling. The chef and co-owner of Treforni Tradizionale Pizza Napoletana in South Durham fell in love with "the physical act of making pizza" thirty years ago, when he took a pizzeria job as a fifteen-year-old in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
"It was great pizza," he says, "but it wasn't the pizza of my life."
Diggins's search for the best pie led him to Neapolitan pizza, which he learned how to make from a mentor, Roberto Caporuscio, who'd mastered his craft at Italy's Pizzeria Starita. At age 115, it's the oldest pizzeria in Naples.
Nearly a dozen fact-finding trips to that shrine made Diggins an expert. Go ahead—ask him about it. He'll tell you the best pizza is made with basic ingredients from Italy (and only Italy), where he gets all his flour, crushed tomatoes, olive oil, and buffalo mozzarella. Don't overload the pizza. Don't overload anything, including salads. It's all about balance. Strive for a slightly different flavor in each bite.
Diggins has proudly applied those rules since he opened Treforni with partner Will Lane in Hope Valley Commons about two and a half months ago. It's a bold statement to declare Treforni's pie the best in town. Fine pizzas are sold downtown at Pompieri Pizza and Pizzeria Toro, not to mention The Boot in Rockwood Shopping Center. In South Durham, Pulcinella's and Bocci both enjoy the faithful followings their pizzas deserve.
But Treforni might just ruin you for anything else. It's not a place where you can "build your own pizza" or order up pasta dishes or small plates when you're not in the mood for a pie. Treforni is not an Italian restaurant. It's a Neapolitan pizzeria, as Diggins insists.
The menu is simple, with seven generously sized personal pies on the rosse side and seven more on the bianche side, plus a few calzones, insalatas, and panuozzos, or sandwiches.
The Margherita—that classic red pizza with sauce, mozzarella, Pecorino Romano, basil, and extra virgin olive oil—is the one Diggins recommends to first-timers. It's a great introduction. The marinara is the star—a perfect blend of tomatoes, garlic, basil, and little else.
Treforni offers two versions of the Margherita. The "D.O.P," made with creamy imported buffalo mozzarella, costs three dollars more than the standard thirteen-dollar version. Both are excellent, so it's really a matter of taste: stretchy versus creamy.
Here's something I learned from Diggins: Neapolitan pizza is baked in ninety seconds or less. I admit I was suspicious the first time I ordered one at Treforni, because it arrived at my table fast. I suspected the crusts were kneaded and spread out on the pan in advance, ready to dress and pop into the oven. So I didn't expect much.
My suspicions were totally unfounded: My first bite introduced me to my favorite pizza crust ever. Treforni's dough (made with "a tiny bit of yeast," says Diggins) goes through a double-fermenting process. It takes about a day and a half of proofing at sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit. Refrigeration would just slow that process.
The pizzas are cooked in three 900-degree ovens, the "tre forni," fired by high-burning oak and fragrant hickory (with "no gas assist," Diggins assures me). It's all done in an open kitchen so that customers ordering at the register can watch the fun.
The crust comes out flavorful and slightly crisp, with just a speckling of char on the bottom and a nice fluffy chew inside. If you're in the habit of leaving "pizza bones" on your plate after you've eaten your slices down to the sauce-and-cheese border, you may find your behavior changing.
My favorite meat pizza on the red menu is the spicy Sarita, with sopressata, mozzarella, basil, and extra virgin olive oil. If you like it slightly hotter, Diggins recommends asking for some Calabrian chili peppers, available at the condiment station, to be baked onto the pie.
Treforni's most popular white pizza is the Prosciutto Arugula—paper-thin prosciutto di Parma on a bed of mozzarella, topped with a pile of arugula after it's pulled out of the oven. But my favorite is the Pistachio Sausage, an inspired blend of pistachio pesto, tender fennel sausage, basil, and cheeses. It's probably the greasiest pizza in the house, in a good way.
All of Treforni's hot items, including calzones and sandwiches, are made with the same dough but stretched differently for a slightly different texture. Sandwich bread is baked to order. (Try the Meatball Parmigiana.)
Nice guy that he is, Diggins probably couldn't sound mean if he wanted to, even when he dismissively compares most American calzones to Hot Pockets. He's just being honest. Many restaurants turn calzones into vessels for all kinds of fillings, but, as Diggins learned in Naples, the classic Neapolitan calzone is salami, ricotta, and mozzarella. That describes his best calzone, the Treforni. Topped with fresh basil and a sprinkling of Reggiano, it looks huge on the plate but is surprisingly light enough to eat in one sitting.
Four appetizer-size salads are available, with various choices of greens (spring mix, arugula, and spinach). The house vinaigrette—a balsamic reduction with olive oil and a little seasoning—couldn't be simpler. The salads are dressed lightly, not drowned. Balance! It's the Naples way.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Red and the White"