(clockwise, from upper left): Oenotri, Solbar, Redd, Pizzeria Azzurro, Auberge du Soleil, Uva, Cantinara Piero, Ca’ Momi, Boon Fly Cafe, Pizzeria Tra Vigne, Papa Joe’s, Bistro Don Giovanni.
The Napa Valley's Best Pizza: My Top 12 The Accidental WinoBy Tim Costner
If there’s one food that can achieve total global supremacy, pizza seems like the natural front-runner. You don’t ever have to sell anybody on pizza. It just seems to endear itself to everybody, like a wealthy uncle, or a gregarious bartender. Although pizza has only become popular here in America since World War II, different schools of thought regarding pizza have already emerged: Individual preferences towards pizza remain highly subjective, and plenty of effort has already been spent hashing out the pizza-related differences between Chicago, New York, and the rest of the country. However, I chose not to acknowledge any of those debates concerning thin crusts or deep dishes. For this segment, I set out to answer just one very hands-on question: Who offers the best pizza in the Napa Valley?
In gathering my data, I’ve eaten 15 small pizzas in the span of about six short weeks, which some folks may view as excessive. Whatever. I had originally intended to feature maybe six or seven pies, but as this review began to assume a life of its own, I pushed that number to 10, and eventually 12 pizzas. As for my guidelines, there weren’t any, really: Any non-chain restaurant earned consideration, so long as it was located within the Napa Valley. As a result, this review encompasses quite a broad spectrum of pizzas, from specialty pizza joints, to mom-and-pop style parlors, to Michelin-star restaurants. The following mishmash of eateries really speaks to the universal nature of pizza itself — otherwise, how else could you possibly compare Papa Joe’s with Auberge du Soleil?
Like many of the top pizzas on this list, Oenotri is a relatively new addition to Downtown Napa, having opened in early 2010. I would argue that, aside from Morimoto opening his restaurant in July, the addition of Oenotri was Downtown Napa’s biggest boon in 2010. Oenotri specializes in rustic, Southern Italian cuisine, including pizzas fired in their wood-fueled oven from Naples. Personally, I prefer a light and airy crust with elements of charring, which is exactly what Oenotri delivers. Like many of Napa’s top pizzas, Oenotri relies upon a thin crust, enough so that their pizzas cook up in less than 90 seconds at 800F. These times and temperatures actually adhere to an Italian standard, and are certified by a Neopolitan consorzio that regulates pizza in the same manner that another consorzio might regulate wine, cheese, or balsamic vinegar. Quick cooking at high temperatures allows for rampant bubbling within the dough, which I can also appreciate; I’ve always viewed the bubbled oddities as the best pieces.
Located inside the Oxbow Market in Napa, Ca’ Momi is so new to Napa that it wasn’t open when I first began my pizza odyssey. The crust on this pie features a satisfying crispiness, a pleasant smokiness, and great overall character. In contrast to the Campania-inspired pizzas at Oenotri, the pizza at Ca’ Momi skews more towards Venice, and the #11 features baby arugula, large flakes of grana padano cheese, and tender strips of roasted pork. It’s a superb pie, and this new-comer to Napa Valley certainly deserves early consideration. One great perk about ordering pizza at Ca’ Moma is that the rest of Oxbow Market is at your feet, and it’s easy to pass the time while the pizza bakes (diners at Ca’ Momi are given pagers to alert them when the pizzas are ready, so window shopping is encouraged). Along with Pica Pica Maize Kitchen (which opened in 2008), Ca’ Momi has really helped to make Oxbow Market an attractive destination.
The Salsiccia pizza at Azzurro is one of my favorite pies, and there are certainly days when this selection might rank at the top for me. Azzurro has led the pizza movement in Downtown Napa, having first opened its doors at the smaller Second Street location in 2001. In 2008, Azzurro moved to its current location at First and Clinton, a space that now offers ample seating, though lunchtime can still prove crowded. In my mind, the Salsiccia pizza at Azzurro is perhaps Napa’s closest relative to New York Style pizza. If you look closely, the tiny blisters on the darkest parts of the crust reveal the pizza’s inherent crispiness. The Salsiccia features fennel sausage, red onions, and mozzarella cheese.
Compared to the wood-fired pizzas from Oenotri and Ca’ Momi (talk about two restaurants with unique names), the pizza at Cantinetta Piero most resembles the latter. Like a proper baguette, the crust of Piero’s pizza can throw some considerable crumbs. It’s the kind of crust you could tear open and butter, that is, if you actually had the gluttonous nerve to butter pizza. I thought about it, and in the eyes of the law, that’s practically the same thing as doing it. Piero’s Funghi pizza features an intense, slightly-sweet schmear of caramelized onions, which for me, borders on onion marmalade.
Hands down, the Maitake mushroom pizza at Solbar is the Napa Valley’s best up-valley option for great pizza, and it’s the only pizza available on the Silverado Trail, as far as I know. The dough at Solbar is based upon a biga-style starter, which cultivates and propagates the yeasts, developing a more complex flavor within the crust. Traditionally, Italian bakers use a biga starter for making ciabatta bread, and Solbar’s pizza crust definitely features some ciabatta-like characteristics within the crumb. The pizza dough is made without sugar, ensuring a relatively light color, even after the dough has finished cooking. In terms of the pizza toppings, I also admire the simplicity of the maitake mushrooms and the cave-aged gruyere, which both lend an earthy-nutty component to the pie.
The bar menu at Redd is one of my favorite menus in the entire Napa Valley. In fact, I rarely order pizza at Redd, since the hoisin pork buns or the sweet-and-spicy Thai chicken wings often take precedent for me. The pizza at Redd is dressed after-the-fact, which represents a bit of an uncommon approach. If I can deconstruct this pizza accurately, I suspect that the dough is sprinkled with cheese before it’s baked, but it also receives a layer of prosciutto, arugula, and cheese after it emerges from the oven. The prosciutto, in particular, is generous by most comparisons, and it blankets the pie nicely for wall-to-wall flavor. Aside from its bar menu, Redd also has one of the best dessert menus in the Napa Valley, though the former pastry chef has since taken a position at Cyrus.
On the right day in the Napa Valley, the pizza at Auberge du Soleil could easily rank higher on this list than sixth. It all depends upon the weather and the view, really, since Auberge offers one of the Napa Valley’s most impressive lunchtime vistas. Although I spent a year at Auberge working as a line cook, I was rarely ever treated to this view, but I did see plenty of foie gras during that time. Along with the two previous pies from Solbar and Redd, the pizza at Auberge rounds out the list of Michelin-star restaurants within this column. To that end, Auberge offers much more than a view, if you really want to splurge; the restaurant’s wine list resembles a phone book, and the bar offers 35 wines by the glass. Yes, 35.
Pizzeria Tra Vigne is an adjunct to Tra Vigne Restaurant, which first gained notoriety under chef Michael Chiarello in the 1990′s. These days, Tra Vigne only has the ghosts of Michael Chiarello, while the man himself can be seen several nights a week in the kitchen (and the dining room) at Bottega, which will celebrate its second anniversary this month. Anyhow, I don’t frequent Tra Vigne proper, although I do enjoy the pies that emerge from the adjacent pizzeria. For me, the fried lemon slices on the Positano pizza are addictive, though I know other folks who feel the same. Crescenza cheese and tender shrimp complete the pizza, and the three flavors represent a very compelling combination. The crust holds its own, as well.
Although Tra Vigne definitely leans in the same direction, Papa Joe’s Pizza crosses into what I call “parlor” territory. Shameless and robust, parlor pizza is what I grew up on as a kid, living in the California suburbs. These are pizzas that demand a splash of Louisiana hot sauce — or perhaps Sriracha — because they have enough stuffing to stand up to the spice. Among Napa’s pizza parlors, Papa Joe’s is the oldest and the best, although it’s delivery and takeout only (thus, the cardboard carrying case pictured above). In the pizza pictured above, the marinated artichokes are an apt counter-point to the sweet, cocktail-sized shrimp. Pound for pound, this was probably the heaviest pizza of the bunch.
Although I have seen potatoes on pizza at some venerable New Haven pie shops, this approach is a bit different. Pizza purists may roll their eyes at the Bambini pizza at Bistro Don Giovanni, however,if you were to swap the french fries for some fresh basil,then you’ve got yourself a very serviceable margherita. Whenever I’ve ordered the Bambini, the servers often ask if I want any ketchup on the side for the fries. Truthfully, the contrast between ketchup and tomato sauce is somewhat off-putting for me; I recommend ordering the pizza with a side of aioli instead. If you’re looking for something a little less inventive, Bistro Don Giovanni also offers more traditional pizzas. However, I would be more than remiss to compile a list of Napa Valley pizzas without acknowledging the Bambini.
I included the Margherita flatbread from the Boon Fly Cafe, even though the restaurant doesn’t actually list this item as a “pizza” per se. To be honest, I’m not sure that this approach is completely fair, since the flatbread pictured above does notexhibit the same character as some of the previous pizza doughs, with their ample crusts and interesting textures. Perhaps this pie had never really aspired to be anything other than a flatbread, so I’mnot sure whether or not Boon Fly’s margherita should actually be juxtaposed with the other pizzas on this list. Ultimately, however, I decided that since the BFC flatbread uses “margherita” in its description (and also offers a pepperoni add-on), it’s fair game. Unfortunately, it’s mostly out-matched by the previous pies.
Although I’ve had a quite a few nice dishes at Uva Traittoria, the day I tasted their Margherita pizza, it struck me as slightly bland, to the extent that I wondered if I had done something to mute my taste buds leading up to lunch. I added crushed red pepper flakes to wake it up, but it probably just needed a pinch of salt in the sauce and perhaps the dough (since mozzarella burrata is inherently on the bland side, I think it needs the help of the other ingredients).A healthy dose of grated parmesan might’ve also made the difference.