What looks to some like a puny, burnt pizza with scant toppings is, to others, a thing of culinary triumph, with a pedigree stretching back hundreds of years.
Marc-Aurele Buholzer squarely resides within the latter group. Since he opened Vero Bistro in mid June, Buholzer has dedicated himself to making the best possible pizza Napoletana that his time, efforts, and equipment can yield. Adhering to the long-established canons of authentic Naples-style pizza, Buholzer staunchly believes in the value of authenticity.
It hasn't been without its challenges. Buholzer says that only now, after months of trial and error, have his pies attained a consistent level of excellence. Having eaten Vero's pizza on two separate occasions, we agree that they are now among the best in town.
Citing innumerable variables — yeast, dough, time, temperature, humidity — Buholzer says the process is infinitely more complex than most people are aware.
"And then there's this guy," he says, pointing to the beefy 100-percent wood-burning oven, which was purchased in Italy and assembled on-site. "We've been working with it for weeks, and it still has its challenges."
But perhaps Buholzer's biggest challenge has less to do with hardware than it does with hard heads. Everybody, he notes, has his or her idea of what the ideal pizza should look, feel, and taste like — dearly held opinions doubtless formed in childhood. Getting some pie fans to accept the fact that his elegant, authentic pies are worthy of equal praise can be difficult.
"That's the hardest part of this," the pizza-maker explains. "'If this pizza is not like that pizza, then it's not as good.' We're dealing with different paradigms here."
So, what's his paradigm?
Buholzer makes his dough daily with Italian flour and fresh yeast. It ferments slowly overnight to develop flavor and structure. Just before baking, the dough is worked by hand — never with a rolling pin that would inhibit the lofty outer crust. The tomato sauce is simply hand-crushed Italian plum tomatoes, a touch of salt, a whisper of herbs. It doesn't see heat until it hits the oven.
When Vero's pies land on the oven floor, which hovers around 850 degrees, they immediately spring to life. The crust — or crown — bubbles up almost immediately. Small bits of fresh mozzarella quickly lose their form, melting like Frosty the Snowman in a greenhouse. In just 90 seconds, the pizza is done.
Pies are served unceremoniously on an upturned tomato can, a green and practical solution that elevates them to nose level. As good as these pies look, it's the aroma — yeasty bread, lively tomato, summery basil, a whiff of woodsmoke — that makes an instant and lasting impression.
These are pies that demand immediate attention, so much so that some fanatical shop owners refuse takeout orders (Buholzer not included). An airy, chewy outer edge blistered with char gives way to a thin, crisp inner crust supporting a few choice ingredients. The dough actually tastes delicious, as opposed to being merely a vehicle for heaps of toppings. Do yourself a favor and buy one pie per person; they are light, lovely, and disappear all too quickly.
A common complaint surrounding this style of pizza is the "deficiency" of toppings. The issue is one of construction, says Buholzer, not cost.
"If a customer comes in and wants a great pizza, I can give them that," he explains. "If they want a great pizza with a bunch of stuff on it, well, that gets more difficult."
Vero offers a very limited menu with a few fresh salads and a dozen 11-inch pies. As befitting a spot housed in the former La Gelateria space, Vero offers gelato made by a long-time employee.
By removing one gelato cooler, Buholzer was able to bump seating up to 42, with a couple more outside on the sidewalk. Vero Bistro does not sell beer or wine, but is in the process of securing a license.
" With more and more people getting into pure, authentic methods and flavors," says Buholzer of his gourmet pies, "I feel that it's the right time in Cleveland for this."