At Pizza Antica, Gordon Drysdale is taking America's favorite food back to the source: Naples.
If you think New Yorkers are persnickety about the thinness of their pizza crusts, check in with the Neapolitans. In May this year, they passed a law ruling that true Neapolitan pizza could be no thicker than one-third of a centimeter in the center.
Pizza Antica complies. On pizzas so delicate and crisp, the crust is everything: crackly but not brittle, covered in large bubbles, and charred finely around the edges. An Antica crust is just strong enough to hold its toppings without caving in, yet doesn't overshadow their flavors.
The restaurant's owner, Gordon Drysdale, is one of those chefs whose career I've been following since the first time I ate his warm brussels-sprout salad. After his acclaimed San Francisco restaurant, Gordon's House of Fine Eats, closed in early 2003, Drysdale seemingly disappeared. It turns out he'd moved down to San Jose, where he opened Pizza Antica, reinventing himself as a Neapolitan-style pizzaiolo. Over the past eighteen months, Pizza Antica San Jose has done so well that co-owners Drysdale, Tim Stannard, and Brannin Beal birthed its sister in Lafayette.
Belying its beautifully aged brick exterior, Pizza Antica's interior has that suburban shininess that can't be antiqued away. The black-and-white Parisian bistro tiles on the floor haven't yet scuffed up, and the brass on the light fixtures gleams suspiciously bright. The most attractive aspect of the restaurant is the bar, all carved woods and mirrors, and stocked to the rafters with wine bottles. That's two stories' worth of wine, coming from all over Europe and California. Two wide-mouthed pizza ovens dominate the kitchen. Gas flames flare out around their edges, the smooth black baking stones tiled with pizzas.
That's gas, not wood, which the Neapolitans would cluck their tongues over. Of course, the Italian law is stricter than any parody could be, ruling, for example, that the tomatoes have to be grown in the soil around Mount Vesuvius.
True pizzas must also be round, like Antica's smalls, which are the size of a dinner plate and serve as a nice meal for one. The restaurant's larges, stretched into long ovals, arrive on elevated pizza peels, and are a partial meal for two or just big enough for two people who have eaten a hearty lunch. You can order "yours" pizzas, choosing ingredients like roasted garlic paste and pancetta to stack on a base of tomato sauce and mozzarella, or pick one of the "ours" combinations. Drysdale offers the classic Neapolitan pizza margherita, smeared thinly with tomato sauce and dotted with large white rounds of housemade mozzarella, julienned basil scattered loosely overtop. It's almost more of an impression than a meal, with aromas of roasted wheat, tomatoes, and herbs that flicker and disappear.
But Americans expect more than that. So Drysdale strikes a balance between Italian austerity and Californian abundance, largely by avoiding sauce. On the number four, with spicy fennel sausage, portobello mushrooms, and roasted red onion, the large chunks of sausage almost have enough punch to make up for its absence. The number six, even more subtly flavored, actually works better. It's covered in scales of sliced, al dente "heirloom" potatoes, sweet-sour caramelized red onions, and a thin, blistery layer of cheese. The pizza is sprinkled with just enough white-truffle oil that you can only smell its perfume when you're at kissing distance.
Despite the name, Drysdale's menu isn't all about pizza. Flanking the pizzas is an entire bistro's worth of appetizers, salads, pastas, entrées, and desserts. It's possible for two people to split a large pie, a salad, a dessert, and a couple of sodas and spend less than $40. Another couple could easily high-hog it with three full courses, a bottle of wine, port for dessert, and a $150 check. Drysdale may have downscaled, but he hasn't left luxury behind.
If you're in the mood for luxury, however, you'll have to wait until a civilized hour for dinner. At eight o'clock, the room is comfortably populated with adults eating adult pizza and drinking adult wines. If you arrive at six-thirty, you'll walk into a playground. On one early evening, every table was packed, several with big birthday parties. You couldn't swing your purse without hitting a toddler, which my tablemate did (it barely noticed). Five-year-olds dodged between the tables, making that five-year-old noise some call joy and others call shrieking. This is what is called "family-friendly" dining.
Nevertheless, my friend and I attempted high-volume adult conversation and forged forward with our adult food. Good enough to shut us up was a classic whole-leaf Caesar, each pale-green leaf slicked in a yolk-rich dressing of garlic and anchovy. Or a wintery ragu of pork, braised with chanterelles, tomatoes, wine, and onions until it melted into velvety threads. On the menu, the ragu was rightfully cited as the main dish, the wide, fresh pappardelle noodles piled on top merely a side.
Drysdale's signature warm brussels-sprout salad was the first thing I ordered on another, later-in-the-day visit. To anyone who's eaten it as it has traveled from restaurant to restaurant, the Lafayette version had lost some of the salad's unctuousness, but the combination -- crisp bacon, sweet-sour caramelized onions, the faint bitterness of the sprout leaves separated like rose petals -- is potent enough to awe first-timers.
Other times, the nonpizza cooks don't quite manage the finesse that Drysdale has become famous for. Another appetizer, prosciutto di Parma, didn't come off because the flavor of the cured ham couldn't quite counterbalance the tart snap of the apples served alongside. There wasn't a hint of pink to a pan-roasted veal London broil. With a squirt of lemon, the well-seasoned flank steak tasted right, but the cut doesn't reward anyone who cooks it past medium-rare. And the requisite creamy-centered bittersweet chocolate cake picked up the same blackened edges that worked so well with the pizza crust, but the char destroyed the delicate balance between bitter and sweet.
However, two other desserts returned to form -- a jiggly vanilla-flecked panna cotta surrounded by a puree of huckleberries, a tart cousin of the blueberry, and apple-huckleberry crisp (hey, it was all about the huckleberries that week) capped with a crumbly crust.
The young waitstaff boldly weaves through throngs of children without tripping, and overall provides service that matches the food for class. One flash of inexperience -- for a pizza-bistro, that is -- occurred when we ordered a small pizza as an appetizer. Our waitress gave us a funny look, then delivered it with our entrées. However, when I asked what wine might go well with one of the dishes, the host brought out tastes of each, and let me choose. It was a neighborly touch, generous enough to seem antiquated. Like the pizza, in the best kind of way.