Think great pizza is a pie in the sky? Say ciao to Tutta Bella
Seattle Times restaurant critic
In Seattle, as elsewhere across the land, pizza-lovers buy America's favorite food frozen from the supermarket, "fresh" from take-'n'-bake shops, by-the-slice at Costco and from persuasive purveyors who promise a pound of pepperoni and a side of chicken wings. Call it the Domino's effect: We eat our pizza heaped with processed meats, flavorless cheese, canned pineapple and a sea of tomato sauce that's inevitably too sweet or too salty.
We've obviously got a lot to learn from Joe Fugere.
One of a handful of certified pizzaiola (pizza makers) in America, Fugere took his passion for pizza to Naples and brought it home to Columbia City, where he offers the Neapolitan ideal at Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria.
While in Italy, Fugere studied under the auspices of the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN) — a legal entity whose strict standards require that pizza be made in an approved fashion (with hand-stretched dough, baked in a wood-fired oven) using only approved ingredients (including low-gluten flour and San Marzano tomatoes grown in the lava-rich soil surrounding Mount Vesuvius). "Their sole purpose," he explains, "is to promote pizza-making the way it was done 150 years ago." Take that, Papa Murphy!
Today you'll find smoke curling from the applewood-fueled oven and flavoring the elegant pizzas at Tutta Bella, which opened in January and only last month was bestowed with the VPN's official sanction: the tomato-stained equivalent of a blessing from the pope, shared by only 10 restaurants in the U.S. and 114 worldwide.
In this handsome, spacious corner setting, windows open onto the historic heart of Columbia City. The pizzas are simply adorned with high-quality ingredients and then swiftly baked in a searing 1,100-degree oven. Each has as its base a slender, beautifully blistered, silky textured crust that gives a gentle tug when you bite into a slice. That toothsome texture speaks to a careful mix of live yeast, highly refined Italian "typo 00" flour and Seattle's finest H20 (the Cedar River watershed's low PH content is a lucky plus, according to Fugere).
Bright-red, fleshy San Marzano tomatoes make the perfect preserved fruit for Tutta Bella's "salsa di pomodoro." This house tomato sauce is painted, sparingly, on the Marinara Napoletana ($5.95) — the Naples classic devoid of cheese and dressed with slivered garlic and oregano. Add a buck for anchovies, which provide a salty counterpoint. The Regina Margherita is a simple composition of pomodoro sauce, fresh mozzarella and basil leaves ($6.95), but I'd willingly pay more for additional daubs of the sparsely applied mozzarella. After all, this is the real McCoyerelli: creamy whole-milk fior di latte.
My bambino scarfed his Bambino ($4.95), an adult-sized pizza wearing tomato sauce and "formaggi di casa" — a blend of aged provolone, asiago and fontina. A kiss of that cheese mix may be found on many of the dozen-plus pizzas, including my favorites: Prosciutto e Rucola ($8.95), with fresh arugula, prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano-Reggiano; the Mediterranea ($8.50), a memorable meld of Kalamatas, marinated mushrooms, eggplant, basil and creamy goat cheese; and Pizza Bianca ($7.95), a special notable for its caramelized onions, roasted garlic and Laura Chenel goat cheese, even better with the addition of rosemary ham ($2).
Pizzas are "individually sized," though each is enough to salve a hearty appetite. Consider bringing along friends, ordering several and sharing. That suggestion also applies to the salads. The "small" is large, "large" is enormous, and they're all great. A simple Caesar comes with housemade croutons and nutty shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano ($4.50/$6.95). The Napoli is the Italian answer to a chef's salad with warm chicken breast, salami, crisp pancetta, Kalamatas and gorgonzola cheese ($5.95/$9.50).
If Tutta Bella has a fault, it's this: An attempt to toe the line between full-service and self-service too often results in confusing service.
You're greeted at the door, shown to a table, asked to peruse the menu, then directed to approach a long counter — stage left to order and stage right to pay. You may keep a running tab for dessert (don't miss the lemon gelato) and drinks (wine is served in glass tumblers; pints and pitchers of Moretti are available on tap). A numbered table-tent lets servers know which table gets what. Want a soda refill? You'll have to approach the counter and ask for it. Need condiments or extra napkins? Grab them yourself from the servers' station, though if you can flag down one of those friendly souls, they're happy to oblige.
Fugere, a former Starbucks exec, is the blond, boyish-looking fellow you'll find working the door, waiting tables or donning a chef's coat and hoisting a pizza peel while directing his kitchen crew as if he were born to do this.
The neighborhood crowd appears happy to have him in their midst, and they're happier still that he offers takeout, recently added lunch service and nearly tripled seating capacity, alleviating extensive waits for a table. And I'm happy to note that even after a trip across town, a night in my fridge and a stay in the oven, my Tutta Bella leftovers were better than most of the fresh pizzas I've eaten elsewhere.
Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company