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Stuzzi keeps the pizza wars raging.

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Our love affair with pizza is obvious. Americans eat about 100 acres of it every day, or about 350 slices per second. Growing up in New England, I had access to some of New York's best as well as New Haven's Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in Connecticut, long voted one of the country's best. Living in Italy further endeared great pizza to me. Thus, coming south 25 years ago was like entering a pizza desert. Thankfully, Richmond recently has been blessed with the addition of some better-than-average slices. Aziza's on Main and Bellytimber both sell quite a few pies from their wood-burning ovens. And I still feel that the simple white pizza at Mamma 'Zu is among the tops in town.

Stuzzi entered the landscape four months ago. Originally a partnership between Peter Caserta (Pasta Luna) and Giuseppe Scafidi, who divested himself recently, it's not only a new pizza place, but also the only Virginia establishment with the VPN (Verace Pizza Napoletana) certification. In addition to paying a $1,500 certification fee and annual dues, these restaurants must conform to criteria that the association deems are essential: Pizza must be cooked by a wood fire and be made with doppio zero, the most highly refined flour, San Marzano plum tomatoes, all-natural fior-di-latte, or bufala mozzarella, fresh basil, salt and yeast. Pizza also must be made using the proper technique — hand-worked or low-speed mixed dough, a proper work surface (usually a marble slab) and a consistent oven temperature of 800 degrees Fahrenheit. What does this mean for Richmond pizza?

Upon entering Stuzzi's modernly decorated space, you can't help but be drawn to the oven — a red tiled, domed monster with mouth open and breathing fire. It commands the room and spits out pizzas with speed. Their crust has a nice chew and imparts the flavors that only a wood fire can. The sauce juxtaposes a homey sweetness with the acidity of the tomatoes. The fresh mozzarella is creamy and gooey, and the basil adds a fresh flair; I only wish there are more than a few sparse leaves.

I also wish Stuzzi had stopped with the pizza Margherita ($8.99), named for the queen of Savoy after she proclaimed it her favorite, reminiscent of the colors of the Italian flag with green basil, white cheese and red sauce. It's the simplest of pies and the restaurant's best by far. When the toppings become heavy with mushrooms, rapini, pepperoni and a host of other choices, the crust can't withstand the weight and becomes uncomfortably soggy.

The one touch I love is the addition of a fresh arugula salad on top of some of the pies. It's unique and the peppery greens are a nice foil, but it's pizza to be eaten with a fork and knife for sure, and preferably on-site. On another visit the short trip home is too long to maintain the pizza's integrity without a reheat in the oven.

Stuzzi's menu offers stuzzi chini, “delicious little things,” as appetizers. Sweet peppers stuffed with fontina and salami ($4.99) are a nice combo of tastes and texture while polpetini meatballs al forno ($7) are boring. Salads ($4.99) are fresh, and I especially appreciate the fennel salad with an orange pomegranate dressing, an assault on the taste buds, in a good way.

The menu also has pastas ($9.99-$11.99), including a smoky ragu napoletana meat sauce with handmade oversized rigatoni and a buccatini amatriciana, nicely flavored but stingy with its pancetta. Neither is worth a special trip. I'm disappointed to learn that Stuzzi doesn't get its sausage from one of Richmond's treasure troves two doors down, Belmont Butchery. It's missing out.

Stuzzi is a nice addition to Richmond's evolving pizza scene, but I wouldn't stray far from the pizza Margherita. And for me the verdict is still out about the importance of a VPN certificate. It seems like merely a marketing ploy that won't matter much to customers. S

Stuzzi
1 N. Belmont Ave.
Lunch 11:30 a.m.- 2:30 p.m. daily
Dinner 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday 
5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
308-3294
www.stuzzirichmond.com

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