Chefs often put their own culinary stamp on pizza, but Marc-Aurele Buholzer of Vero Pizza Napoletana (12421 Cedar Rd., 216-229-8383, veroclevland.com) in Cleveland Heights chooses to go back in time and focus solely on making the most authentic Neapolitan-style pizza he can possibly make.
Born in a village outside Geneva, Switzerland, Buholzer and his family immigrated to America when he was just a child. While growing up in Chardon, Buholzer struggled to find his path in life. But after enrolling in CSU and majoring in philosophy and religious studies, life began to come into focus. "Things were starting to make sense," he explains. "I realized I have to be fully connected to what I am doing."
Buholzer has unknowingly been on his present career path for years. "I got my restaurant start as a busser at 16 for Valerio Iorio, owner of Valerio's in Little Italy," says Buholzer. When Iorio opened La Gelateria in 2002, Buholzer was right there with him. "This was the first gelateria in Cleveland. At that time, I didn't even know what gelato was, but people were flocking from all over Cleveland."
As business grew, Iorio decided to expand the store's offerings, going so far as to install a wood-fired pizza delivered from Naples, Italy. "I have to give it to Valerio—this was a few years before the wood-fired craze hit the U.S.," says Buhlozer.
Once the beefy brick oven began turning out thin, crisp pies, the shop slowly gained a following among devotees. As the professional pizzaiola (pizza maker) mastered the art of maintaining the fire, making the dough, and executing the pies, Buholzer watched with a keen eye. "I knew there was something special that we were making out of this oven," says Buholzer.
Then one day opportunity struck when the pizzaiola walked out. "I think he had a nervous breakdown, and he was the only guy making the pies," says Buholzer. So, as any eager student would do, Buholzer stepped into the role, learning the craft over the next two years.
But he didn't love the work he was doing. "I spent over two years making mediocre pizza, plus I didn't have carte blanche at La Gelateria, so I left," he explains. When he later learned that La Gelateria had closed—and the wood-fired oven remained—he jumped at the chance to acquire it. "Then everything seemed to click," he says. "I put a business plan together, gathered some money and opened Vero."
Buholzer, along with family and friends, spent months redesigning the interior, refocusing the design from gelato to pizza. When the doors opened last summer, Buholzer was still perfecting his craft. But within weeks of opening, he felt that he had not only perfected the dough but also Italy's centuries-old tradition. "It was about three to four years of working with the dough and the oven— the same time for the average apprentice pizzaiolo in Naples," he says.
These days, Buholzer is turning out exquisite pies that take just 90 seconds to bake in his skillfully managed 850- to 900-degree oven. Vero's most popular pie, the Margherita, stars a few simple but fresh ingredients: San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil, sea salt, and extra virgin olive oil. On the spicier side, the Diavola pizza stars San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella, sausage, and Calabrian chiles. Vero still offers a full line of gourmet gelato, made by the same person as always.
More recently, Buholzer decided to scrap the entire appetizer portion of his menu, instead focusing solely on pizza. "I wanted to focus on the foundation of our business, the dough and Napolitano art," explains Buholzer.
His dedication appears to be working as Vero has been getting some big props from some big names. "Jonathon Sawyer, Doug Katz, Rocco Whalen, Ben Bebenroth and even Michael Symon have all given the thumbs up to what we're doing here, which means a lot to everyone here at Vero," says Buholzer.