I never expected to find the region's best pizza in Highland Heights. But that was before I met Anthony Pilla.
"I am not a chef," says the enthusiastic 21-year-old. "I am a pizzaioli. I don't cook the appetizers. I don't make the soup. My sole dedication is making pizza."
Pilla's domain is Crostatas, an attractive pizzeria opened last fall by John Quagliata. Brother to Carl and founding partner in Ristorante Giovanni's, Quagliata set out to craft the most authentic Neapolitan-style pizza that money, talent and passion could attain.
After knocking an Arabica Coffee House to the ground, Quagliata built a sharp villa-style eatery boasting a tile roof, sun-filled interior and open kitchen. The centerpiece of that kitchen is the beautiful wood-burning pizza oven. Built by hand over the course of a week by Italian craftsmen, the oven is the key to achieving what Quagliata matter-of-factly calls "good pie."
To folks like Quagliata and Pilla, pizza is a black-and-white issue: You either do it right or you don't. Doing it right means using specific ingredients, techniques and equipment in an attempt to master the elusive art of authentic Neapolitan-style pizza.
"With Neapolitan pizza," explains Pilla, "less is more. You want people to actually taste the dough, to taste the sauce, to taste the fresh mozzarella. When a pizza has only a few ingredients, you can't hide anything."
Pilla's days begin at the oven. He coaxes yesterday's lingering embers into a fresh blaze of fragrant hickory wood. Unlike almost every other pizza oven in town, this one is fueled exclusively by wood fire. And to reach the optimal internal temperature of 950 degrees Fahrenheit by lunchtime, Pilla needs to feed the beast bright and early in the morning.
When the fire is rolling, Pilla turns his attention to the dough. Like everything to do with Neapolitan pizza, there are strict rules governing the process. Working in a small, temperature-controlled room, Pilla combines precise amounts of finely milled Italian flour, fresh cake yeast, water and salt. The ingredients are blended in a special mixer that employs menacing mechanical arms rather than whisks, paddles or dough hooks. For the dough to achieve the proper flavor, texture and lift, it is left to rise slowly overnight in coolers.
When the time comes to prep the dough for the oven, it is treated with the utmost respect. Stretching is done by hand on a floured marble slab; rolling pins are forbidden. And you will never see a serious pizza chef play with his or her dough like it's a dog toy.
"The less you mess with the dough, the more it will pop the second it hits the hot stone," Pilla explains. In a 950-degree oven, it takes a pizza just 90 seconds to cook. If the pizza is going to "pop" — or rise satisfactorily — it had better not take its time. When one of Pilla's pies hits the floor of the hellishly hot pizza oven, it springs up like an angry cobra. Those willowy pockets of air quickly transform into achingly crisp blisters that shatter on contact. The rest of the dough is chewy but far from tough. And it tastes delicious.
As dictated by pizza code, Pilla uses only imported San Marzano tomatoes, which ripen on the volcanic slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Because it would be a shame to cook away the bright, summery freshness of these tomatoes, Pilla simply stems and squeezes the fruits by hand before combining them with some salt and Sicilian oregano. The cheeses that top Crostatas' pies are only those naturally occurring in Italy: mozzarella di bufala, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padano. Same goes for toppings. Customers will find Italian sausage, artichokes, prosciutto and roasted garlic. What they will not find is pepperoni.
"We don't serve pepperoni pizza because that's an American thing," says Pilla. Asked how customers respond when informed that they can't order their favorite flavor, the pizza chef says, "It gives us the perfect opportunity to explain who we are, what we do and why we do it."
The best pizza on Crostatas' menu is the Margherita ($14.50). It is the perfect marriage of crust, tomato, mozzarella, basil and extra virgin olive oil. Purists will doubtless seek out the marinara ($9.75), minimally topped with sauce, herbs and olive oil. Pizzas like the Classico ($14.75), with 24-hour roasted tomatoes, caramelized onions and sautéed mushrooms, while tasty, tend to obscure the art beneath.
Apart from some traditional and well-executed Italian appetizers, salads and dessert, the menu is largely confined to pizza. "You go through all this trouble and expense to make authentic Neapolitan pizza," explains Quagliata, "why serve pasta?"