Blocks Pizza Deli in South Beach Blends Italy With Local Ingredients

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Inside Blocks Pizza Deli, managing partner Richard Collins chatters in Italian with Eugenio Vittoni, a fair-haired, slim European gentleman imported straight from Verona. And though the restaurant's concept is as Italian as most of the employees -- selling pizza by the slice and offering a take-and-bake option -- none of the ingredients comes from the mother country. Instead, the pizzeria has opted to use only the freshest local products.

While pizza chef Vittoni tends to the dough in the kitchen, Collins says there isn't even a freezer back there. "A lot of other pizzerias use frozen products. Ours are all-natural. We're using only fresh products," says Collins, the only American partner. "We freeze nothing here. We don't use preservatives, so if it's not consumed within 24 hours, it gets thrown out."

Asked about sourcing, Collins says, "Eugenio will go to the farmers' market and buy ingredients. He can tell you all about that. He'd come talk to you now, but if he leaves the batch of dough now, we'll have to throw it all away."

As great as it is that the sliced portobello mushrooms, organic leeks, and baby spinach leaves aren't defrosted toppings, the clear focus of the pizzeria is the use of "mother dough" -- the pride and joy of not only Blocks Pizza Deli's owners but also an entire "confraternity" of Italians going back centuries.

This is certainly no Domino's but also not Gino's or Miami's Best. Since the pizzeria opened two months ago, new customers have drawn comparisons to local favorite Pizza Rustica -- probably because pizza slices (called blocks) are sold by the rectangle, with specialty slices preassembled and ready to be baked in the oven.

But the difference is twofold. First, the slices are baked, not reheated, to order. It might be confusing, or even off-putting, to see unbaked pizza on display, but this only means the pizza with its freshly melted cheese tastes that much better. Second, of course, is the dough. All it takes is one bite to reveal that this light sourdough won't leave you feeling heavy the way a competitor's denser crust would.

The tradition of this special mother dough began on the Italian island of Sardinia 300 years ago, passed down by the Confraternita Della Pasta Madre to those who make the commitment to tend to it properly. Yeast from the original batch has been kept alive by adding water and flour daily, and it is turned into dough through an intensive, multiday process.

"That's the nice and romantic thing about this now. In no way can you sell something like that. It's just on the passion and care of the person that you give the yeast, that it's going to work its magic," Chef Vittoni explains in a thick Italian accent.

Even if this sounds like some fairy tale or pure folklore, there are digestive health benefits. "Our dough is completely leavened naturally for 48 to 72 hours, while other doughs are basically still leavening when they're sold to you," Collins says. "That's where you get that bloated feeling after eating pizza."

Pizza is sold al taglio, or by the cut, the way it's done in regions of Italy. A block (a rectangular slice divided into four smaller pieces) starts at $3 for the Royal, essentially a simple margherita, and goes up to $4.95 for a signature, like the SLP, which has sausage, leeks, and Parmesan. A whole pie made for delivery comprises four blocks.

The pizza is fired in an oven that has an inner turntable to help cook the dough evenly. But the crust still has a rustic look and taste, rather than that all-too-perfect quick delivery pizza chain feel.

A block and a salad make an affordable, easy lunch that you won't feel guilty about. Create your own with added toppings (50 cents for veggies or 95 cents for cheese and meats), or stop by after a long workday to take a block home and bake yourself. Someone will hand you a card with the baking instructions.

At other pizza joints, you might want to pack on the grated Parmesan or sprinkle on some oregano, but Chef Vittoni suggests his infused extra-virgin olive oils -- like the garlic or rosemary varieties, which each take about a week for the flavors to permeate.

There are also calzones for $4 or $4.50 and pockets for $5.50. With toppings stuffed inside a crust shaped like pita but made from the same mother dough, pockets are the menu option that fall between a calzone and a block.

Every month or so, they'll feature seasonal ingredients in special pizza blocks and pockets. (Last month, eggplant was highlighted, but it has since gone out of season, and Vittoni has selected zucchini as a summery addition.) But overall, the menu is kept consistent, streamlined, and simple.

Blocks Pizza Deli is located on Washington Avenue -- next to Cameo and across from the village at Española Way -- only two blocks from where health-conscious Naked Pizza had a storefront before it closed. And with still-standing Pizza Fusion, which touts organic and sustainable fare, more than a mile south, pizza lovers walking through the neighborhood should stop by Blocks.

It's a unique-to-Miami pizzeria that has taken a concept from a far-away land and executed it with local ingredients. Just familiarize yourself with the foreign pizza al taglio tradition beforehand, and you're good to go.

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