Restaurant Reviews

Miami's La Leggenda, Antico, Proof, and Tropical Lead Pizza's Golden Age

Giovanni Gagliardi stands before his red pizza oven like an orchestra conductor. He wears a crisp white T-shirt and a baseball cap bearing the logo of San Felice, an iconic Neapolitan flour mill. Baggy chef pants covered in a print of hundred-dollar bills peek out from under his apron. His baton is a seven-foot metal pole with a small spatula at the end.

As orders roll in, the short, sturdy Italian with thick black eyebrows and week-old stubble tosses a pale lobe of dough between his hands three times to stretch it into an uneven oval. Then he lays it down, taps it a few times with his fingers, and scatters a slick of olive oil on top, followed by a spoonful of San Marzano tomato sauce. Next come hunks of milky fior di latte mozzarella, salty olives, and white anchovies.

"Shame on you if you go back to eating poor-quality dough and industrial cheese."

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Moments later, he slides the pie into the nearly 900-degree oven. The pizza bubbles, inflates, and chars at the edge before he pulls it out steaming and slips it onto a plate. Finally, he snips the crust with a pair of scissors to reveal an interior with yawning air bubbles that have pulled and stretched the dough until it looks like the inside of an ancient cave. "Look!" he exclaims in Italian. "That's what Neapolitan pizza is supposed to look like."

click to enlarge La Leggenda Pizzeria opened in South Beach this past May. - CHRISTINE MICHELLE PHOTOGRAPHY
La Leggenda Pizzeria opened in South Beach this past May.
Christine Michelle Photography

When Gagliardi, age 43, opened La Leggenda Pizzeria (224 Española Way, Miami Beach; 305-763-8566) this past May, he became the latest in a new generation of pizzaiolos. Over the past five years, this group has spawned more than a half-dozen places that put pies on the pedestal they deserve.

This golden age began around 2013 when Mark Iacono expanded his beloved Brooklyn pizzeria, Lucali, which serves wide, crisp-crusted pies, to Miami Beach's Sunset Harbour neighborhood. Ironside Pizza, which Gagliardi helped open, debuted the following year, bringing almost perfect Neapolitan-style pies to Little River. In 2015, Renato Viola launched Visa-O1 (now known as Mister O1 following a lawsuit from the credit card company) in a hidden kitchen in Miami Beach. His star-shaped pizzas became the stuff of legend and helped spawn two additional locations in Brickell and Wynwood. In 2016, Paul Giannone's Brooklyn pizza empire, Paulie Gee's, expanded to Miami, bringing pies like the Hellboy, crowned with hot soppressata and spicy honey, to town. Between them all, places like Brickell's Stanzione 87, Andiamo! Brick Oven Pizza, Baccano, Harry's Pizzeria, and Coconut Grove's Farinelli 1937 have made life better with each passing day.

Neapolitan pies are the foundation of it all. The European Union set strict standards for them in February 2008. They must be round with a diameter not exceeding 35 centimeters, a crust height of about one to two centimeters, and a central thickness of 0.4 centimeters. They must also be baked in a wood-burning oven. Ingredients include ultrafine "00" flour milled in and around Naples, San Marzano tomatoes, and either fior di latte or bufala mozzarella.

click to enlarge Giovanni Di Palma of Antico Pizza Napoletana in South Beach. - CATMAX PHOTOGRAPHY©
Giovanni Di Palma of Antico Pizza Napoletana in South Beach.
CatMax Photography©

"Pizza isn't new," says Giovanni Di Palma, who expanded his fleet of Atlanta pizzerias to Miami Beach when Antico Pizza Napoletana (1058 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 786-216-7908) opened in late April. "Diners today want a better product. And once you've had better pizza, shame on you if you go back to eating poor-quality dough and industrial cheese."

In the hallowed sky-blue building on Collins Avenue that once housed David's Café, Di Palma and his crew turn out pies that he says follow all of the rules of Naples but with some slight modifications to include the best of Brooklyn-style places.

The amount of cheese — specifically bufala mozzarella — is increased, and pies are a tad larger. The cheese is drained to prevent sogginess, a common American complaint about Neapolitan-style pizza. The kitchen even places pieces of the dried mozzarella called scamorza under the sweet, tangy hunks of San Marzano tomatoes.

"I've lived in Naples and made pies there. I know what Neapolitan pizza is," Di Palma says. "Mine are a combination of those centuries of tradition and little elements of what you'd find in one of Lucali's pies."

That truth is evident in each slice. They can easily be picked up and folded, revealing an underside speckled with smoky char from the wood-burning oven. The slight crunch continues through the airy crust and even a bit into the center of the pie, which easily holds up to the delicious, garlicky runoff of a white pie mined with chunks of sausage and knots of broccoli rabe. The creamy splotches of bufala mozzarella scattered across this and most other pies become indispensable on a margherita pizza dotted with Calabrian peppers that burst spicy oil. The tomatoes' sweet tang intensifies with each bite. Meanwhile, fried basil leaves pack in nutty, flowery notes and help bring the mozzarella back into focus. If only you didn't have to fight your way to Collins Avenue to get it.

Christine Michelle Photography

Easier to reach for mainlanders is Proof Pizza & Pasta (328 N. Miami Ave., Miami; 786-536-9562), which Justin Flit opened in midtown Miami in 2014. From the beginning, the menu plied Neapolitan pies littered with ingenious toppings such as braised oxtail, black garlic, and thyme. However, the crust always fell short of Naples' best, was at times too chewy and dense, and ultimately a drag on the ingredients. Some guests complained about the char marks left by the 900-degree oven.

So Flit pivoted and combined sturdier bread flour with the Neapolitan flour that purists demand — canon be damned. Today, Proof's crusts are crisp and still a bit thick. There's none of the excessive heft and density of the former recipe. The crust also somehow avoids brittleness even after it's been out of the oven for more than a few minutes. Still, the toppings, which on a margherita include the classic San Marzano tomatoes and bufala mozzarella, remain the heart and reason to order it over and over again.

Nearby at Adam Gersten's Wynwood bar Gramps, a crayon-red-and-yellow shack on the patio sells a New York-style pizza unseen since North Miami Beach's King's County Pizza closed in 2016. And the slices here are even better.

Gersten teamed up with Frank Pinello, a New York City-raised Sicilian who had worked for Roberta's before opening Brooklyn's Best Pizza in 2010. Since then, Pinello has gone on to become a pied piper of pizza in New York and beyond while hosting a pizza show on Viceland. The two met thanks to a mutual friend who owned the Brooklyn bar the Commodore and quickly hatched plans to bring a better slice to Miami with Pizza Tropical (176 NW 24th St., Miami; 855-732-8992), which opened in summer 2016.

"What you get on the plate is a classic New York slice," Gersten says. "You're getting much better ingredients at basically the same price."

Here, the sauce leans sweeter and a bit thicker than the San Marzano tomatoes on Neapolitan pies. The cheese isn't fresh mozzarella, but at the same time it isn't the greasy industrial sludge that lacks milky flavor and hardens to a brick after a few moments out of the oven. Instead, it's a bit salty, with a barely creamy texture that stretches from your mouth to your hand with each bite. This is the kind of pizza you can fold in half and eat on the go or sit back with while delighting in a lazy weekend afternoon or a drunken stupor. It's crisp all the way up to the crust, which adds a little more heft.

But if you ask La Leggenda's Gagliardi, the traditional Neapolitan reigns supreme. "We invented pizza," he says. "We need to teach people what it's all about, how it should be done, and how important ingredients, even simple ones like cheese and tomatoes, can be."

Di Palma of Antico is more liberal: "The best pizza is one you like the most and one that's done with skill and good ingredients."