Pizza is said to have originated as peddlers' food in Naples around the 18th century. Cheap and easy, the idea caught on and has transitioned to a menu staple nearly everywhere. And while toppings can run the gamut, purists consider only two types of pizza to be the true thing: marinara and margherita. Marinara, made with tomato, garlic and olive oil, is food for seamen when they returned from trips on the Bay of Naples. Margherita, with the addition of mozzarella and basil, captures the colors of the Italian flag.
For decades, Richmond's pizza choices have been fairly standard. But now that wood-fired ovens — still somewhat novel here — have entered the market, strung along Main Street from the Museum District to Shockoe Bottom, a fair amount of buzz has followed. At best, wood-fired pizzas are simple and invigorating. Or, they can be burned, soggy in the middle and unworthy of the hype. Here's a cursory glance at Richmond's three new options:
Stuzzi: Located in the former 1 North Belmont restaurant and touting Neapolitan-style pizza, a bright-red Venetian glass and lava rock oven churns out flat circulars six at a time. The overwhelmingly warm environment found on four recent visits may change your mind when deciding to stay for an after-dinner cocktail, and the pizza may not bring me back.
Still battling a crust-to-topping-ratio issue, Stuzzi's originators have many inches to go to be on par with Neapolitan pizzaiolos. A comparison will be made to 2Amys in Washington, and, for now, Stuzzi will fall flat. 2Amys is Richmond's nearest certified Neapolitan pizza producer. It's been tapped by Denominazione di Origine Controllata for following regulations that keep the tradition that is “true” pizza alive. Criteria for this certification include: a specific recipe for hand-formed dough, local fresh mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes and cooking times that do not exceed 90 seconds, among a few other particulars. It should be noted that Stuzzi is consistently busy and often quite noisy, a 180-degree change from its days as a quiet French fine-dining room.
(Editor's Note: Since press time, Stuzzi manager Karan Sharma says the restaurant has installed a new air conditioning system.)
1 N. Belmont Ave.
Bellytimber Tavern: Settled in the old Border CafAc, this new, wood-smelling pub has an igloo-shaped wood-fired oven. Spinning out pizza with caramelized bacon and duck confit, its college pie is elevated by uncollegiate toppings. My few visits have been positive: The service is stellar at the bar and the place is sufficiently packed. While I'm not writing home to Mom about the pizza, it is decent. I'd get a few pies to study for exams, to take to the river or to picnic at the park. It plays well in the morning and I found myself chewing on a few slices on my commute to work, bringing back memories of the late rush to my 8 a.m. class.
1501 W. Main St.
Aziza's on Main: Calmer environs find this baker and his Roman brick oven producing the circular tomato goodness that Aziza's is naming R.G.P. (really good pizza). Aziza's even goes so far as to label the menu Richmondpolitan.
Well, it's not lying — it really doesn't fit into any category of pizza. The owner's history in baking — he's the founder of Billy Bread — shows in the love he adds to the dough. It has me attempting to inhale the delicate and flavorsome crust. Light, sweet tomato sauce and a bare smattering of fresh cheese and basic toppings allow that fresh-baked bread taste to show through. The menu sports some very neo influences, with San Marzano and bufala mozzarella as topping choices. Make sure you walk to the back to check out the brick wall of fire. It really is a vision.
2110 E. Main St.