Invented in Naples, the pizza has become one of the world’s favourite fast foods. But for every good pizza there are many dozens of bad ones. Living’s restaurant reviewer, Peter Calder, checks out his top pizza picks in town.
My first brush with good pizza must have been when I lived in Sydney in the early 80s, since it was unknown here then. The principles of good pizza-making - fierce heat, thin crust, ingredients that emphasise quality over quantity - were triumphantly expressed in the finished product and I was hooked.
Some surveys suggest pizza is our preferred takeaway food - it is certainly in the top five - and the proliferation of outlets attests to that. But the pizza makers on these pages will all tell you pizza doesn't travel well and must be eaten instantly.
There's a lot of bad pizza around, but the places below, listed in no particular order, are certainly five of Auckland's best. Let us know your faves, by all means, but remember, if Hawaiian (unknown in Hawaii, and indeed anywhere else in the world) is your favourite, these places all have news for you. And if you think a pizza with 12 toppings and a frankfurter-stuffed crust is the answer, you may be asking the wrong question.
27 Mt Eden Rd, Grafton
Ph: (09) 302 2500
Luca Villari, who was "the pizza boy" at Cin Cin back when that waterfront place did some of the best pizza in town, hails from Latina, midway between Rome and Naples.
He prides himself on making authentic "pizza napoletana" according to the recipes given to him by Al Volo's founder, Giampiero. ("I had to buy the place to get the recipe," he says). Luca came runner-up to Dante's Kevin Morris - for whom he expresses the utmost respect - in the local leg of an international pizza competition last year. ("I put too many basil leaves on the margherita," he says. "I'll get him next time.")
If he had it his way, Al Volo would serve only two styles of pizza: the margherita (mozzarella, basil, virgin olive oil, parmigiano) and the cheeseless marinara (extra-virgin olive oil, garlic, oregano, sea salt) "because the essence of great pizza is minimal topping and quality ingredients, but no one would survive in New Zealand doing just those". For the Herald on Sunday, he made us a Miki - his own creation, named for co-owner (and his fiancee) Michaiah Simmons. The tomato-free pizza had discs of shaved potato on a buttery base of burrata - a heavenly concoction of buffalo mozzarella and cream. Al Volo sources all its cheese (apart from the parmigiano reggiano) from Massimiliano De Caro at Il Casaro in Glenfield. Subtle bass notes of rosemary come through and after the pizza comes out, bresaola (air-dried beef), rocket and truffle oil complete the picture. Villari says the 400C manuka-fired oven, which can cook a margherita in 90 seconds, blisters the dough just so, causing the rim to rise and form what pizza makers call a cornichon and lending a faint smokiness to the thin, crisp base.
Dante's Pizzeria Napoletana
136 Ponsonby Rd
Ph: (09) 378 4443
Fortieth and Hurstmere
40 Hurstmere Rd
That Kevin Morris makes the best Neapolitan pizza in town may be a matter of opinion. But since that opinion is shared by his competitors and the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, the official protector of the original tradition, it carries some weight. Morris was the first in New Zealand and the second in the Southern Hemisphere to get AVPN certification - a gruelling, year-long process.
When I caught up with him he was just back from a world championship in Parma in which he scored highly but, along with more than half of the 615 entrants, was disqualified (he thinks his dough ball was 6g overweight).
The Essex-born 43-year-old had an Italian mother and learned the basics from his grandfather, who is immortalised in the shop name. "When I came to New Zealand I was moaning, as Poms tend to do, about how bad the pizza was and someone challenged me to put my money where my mouth is. That gave me the push to start."
The first local maker of pizza napoletana, he started in Kumeu in 2006, and found the going hard at first "because the previous shop's customers were saying, 'There's no meat, no [cheddar] cheese, no pineapple, no chicken'." When he realised 70 per cent of his custom was not local he moved to where the customers were, setting up in Ponsonby and recently expanding to Takapuna.
His pride and joy is the classic margherita: the base takes four days to make so the gluten breaks down and it's easy to digest, he says, and the topping is hand-crushed, pepper-shaped San Marzano tomatoes grown in a village near Naples, with mozzarella and basil. It gets 90 seconds at 450C and a drizzle of extra virgin. The puffy cornichon, the leopard-skin base - this is the real deal.
Morris sees himself as on a mission to encourage more pizza makers, even if they become his competition.
"If people do it the right way, more people will try it and more people will find out what good pizza tastes like," he says. "That way we all benefit."
113 Ponsonby Rd
Ph: (09) 360 4414
35c Vulcan Lane
Ph: (09) 309 4414
Jonny Rudduck, who has been selling Roman-style pizza "al taglio" (by the slice) in Ponsonby since 2002 and last year opened a CBD branch, freely admits to being biased against the Neapolitan style of pizza. He finds it "a bit sloppy and floppy and greasy".
The Roman style is distinctly different, typically rectangular - Il Buco's are cooked in 600mm by 400mm trays and sold as 100mm by 150mm slices - so the crispy, crunchy base is more stable than the Neapolitan. You don't fold before you bite. They also have lavish toppings in which cheese is not mandatory - the Funghi has just mushrooms and parsley; the Ortolana is potato, zucchini, onion and capsicum - and sometimes sparingly used. The Vittoria has roasted pumpkin, spinach and caramelised onion with dots of blue cheese.
Rudduck, who did his time in some pretty swank kitchens before a fling in the corporate world, learned pizza-making from Romans and still has the manual from Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli (Italian Pizza School). He's made four new ones in 12 years, of which the Vittoria is his favourite.
"Less is more" is the philosophy behind his menu of about 20 varieties (including six vegan and eight vegetarian). He even does gluten-free varieties in defiance of the purists' insistence that flour with high gluten content is essential. Because his pizzas are part-made in advance and finished in a hot oven, he requires the consistency of electricity and he prefers customers to eat in "because pizza doesn't travel well". And as for reheating at home? "There are three swear words here: chicken, pineapple and microwave."
3/1 Rata St, New Lynn
Ph: (09) 826 0777
The unassuming shop near the big four-way intersection at the end of Rata St has been a takeaway pizza joint for the better part of a decade and the new owner, Naples native Francesco Acri, has put some tables in, got a liquor licence and added a couple of pasta dishes and desserts. But he insists his place, which takes its name from the highest card in the deck of a Neapolitan card game called scopa, is primarily a pizzeria.
"A place that serves pizza as a support to a larger menu doesn't usually do good pizzas," he suggests.
He burns manuka in a wood-fired oven (essential to a Neapolitan pizza, he says) which cooks a standard pizza in less than two minutes at 400C, at which point the dome of his oven is white-hot. The essence of a good pizza is simplicity, he says. "Too many people try to complicate it."
He makes his dough the day before to allow it to mature, which makes for a light, crisp base that doesn't feel heavy in the stomach. Most of his ingredients (fennel pork sausage, mozzarella) are local, although he imports his San Marzano tomatoes, prosciutto and gorgonzola.
For us, he made a one-off not on his menu - fresh basil, cherry tomato, porcini mushrooms, pork-and-fennel sausage meat - which came on a base of a rock-hard crust, speckled like leopard-skin on the underside, and a pillow-soft interior: the airy cornichon was virtually hollow. Reluctantly, in response to Kiwi appetites, he offers the dreaded pineapple, even though it breaks his heart: "Pizza is really personal," he says. "You make a pizza how you feel inside because it says something about where you come from."
166 Richmond Rd, Grey Lynn
Ph: (09) 361 1593
New York native Chickalena Rose, whose cheerfulness is as extravagant as her body art, opened Epolito's in One Tree Hill in 2005 and, after more than a year of hibernation, has reappeared in the middle of Grey Lynn. Auckland's most established practitioner of the New York style, Rose learned her craft in her home town in upstate New York from her Sicilian neighbour, Carlo Rovetto.
"I started at 13 and was opening the shop at 15 and I haven't stopped making pizza since."
Rose, who is wearing a T-shirt with the legend "Bringing it back old school" when we meet, says the essence of the New York pizza, which she calls a pie in the New York manner, is that the dough is crispy but slightly resistant.
"When you bite into it, you have to pull slightly and it's got a nice chew to it. But it has to be light also."
Epolito's 13-pie menu has all the New York classics: common additions to the basic tomato and cheese base are pepperoni, meatball and sausage. "But the rest are just made up: the East Side (artichoke, lemon and parmesan) and the On Madison (black olive, roasted garlic and feta) I made myself."
It is this last one Rose whips up for me and it's a treat, especially since I'm no great fan of black olives, whose sweetness is nicely counterbalanced by the tangy feta. Each chewy mouthful delivers a heavenly hit of roasted garlic.
Rose's bagels are distinctive, too, and not just because they're big. The crust is almost shell-hard and the inside agreeably firm. It is unusual to find baked goods in a pizzeria, but at Chickalena's it seems the most natural thing in the world.
Good performers mentioned by our five favourites included:
• the New York-style Gorgeous Pizza Bar, 327 Dominion Rd, Ph: (09) 630 3378
• the mobile Napoli Central, seen at farmers' markets
• Toto's famous pizza by the metre, available from Farina, 244 Ponsonby Rd, Ph (09) 302 2665.