It's dusk on a Saturday, and I'm asking Javier, the waiter, to add $8 artichokes to my $24 pizza. The Colombian 20-something with a Salvador Dalí mustache squats in front of my table, strokes his whiskers, and looks cool.
"One calzone with shallots and portobello," he parrots. "And a pie with garlic, basil, and artichokes."
I order a few beers and try not to think about the bill, which already exceeds $60. At Lucali, a 4-month-old pizza place in South Beach's Sunset Harbour, I dread the check like Amanda Bynes fears the tabloids. In front of Javier and his mustache, though, I can't lose my composure. He's just so damn cool.
A group of women wearing skimpy beach coverups and Panama hats saunters in off the street and sits nearby. "Whoo!" hoots a brunette who comments on Javier's facial hair. He grins and, hoisting a notepad, scribbles their order: wine, calzones, pies, and many, many artichokes.
"OMG. They have Nutella pizza!" she squeals. Her bill is approaching hundreds of dollars — either she doesn't mind or she doesn't know yet.
But I do know. I've been visiting Lucali, the Miami outpost of Mark Iacono's famed Brooklyn flagship, since it opened. In May 2009, GQ's Alan Richman ranked the original location's product among America's best pies. The South Beach restaurant, run by Iacono's cousin Dominic Cavagnuolo, has pies — and prices — worthy of the crown.
And a lot of people pay those prices. Trek past the warren of yachts at Sunset Harbour Marina to visit Lucali on a weekend, and here's what you will likely see: shy couples passive-aggressively squabbling over the last slice; a kid reading a flipbook about the Beatles while his parents drink white wine; a gray-haired pair paying more attention to their smartphones than each other. At first sight, Lucali looks like a regular pizza joint.
Furnishings seem unassuming — mismatched tables and chairs, an open kitchen, a working bench occupied by pizza-makers in white T-shirts — but by candlelight, everything glows. Men clad in cotton shine with sweat as they use empty wine bottles to roll dough.
But there are clues to the restaurant's higher status. Pizza-makers take their time prepping pies for the wood-burning oven. Crusts eventually emerge thin and blistered, their surfaces puffed by blackened bubbles of golden dough. Melted buffalo mozzarella and shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano cocoon smooth tomato sauce — a secret recipe that can be ordered as a side dish for $1.50. The 24-inch pizzas start at $24. Beef pepperoni, onions, red peppers, shallots, portobello mushrooms, and hot peppers cost an additional buck or more. Artichokes are the priciest of the bunch. Garlic and fresh basil are free.
Pies are large enough to feed three. Though in my case, really only two.
A thicker pie would be more filling, but Lucali's success lies in its paper-thin crust — so slender it crisps, so sturdy it folds. A bit more tomato or mozzarella would make pies soggy. Too little sauce and they'd resemble matzo. No Parmigiano, and pies would lack the aged cheese's nutty flavor. Cook basil in the sauce, and it would kill the herb's sweet scent. Despite this pizza's seemingly simple components, achieving Lucali's texture and flavor is no easy feat.
Still, critics object to the price and the all-around hype. Lacking black truffle or hydroponic arugula, these pizzas seem inexpensive to make. And when it comes to nostalgic foods such as pizza, it's easier to identify faults than strengths. But what makes Lucali special isn't the ingredients — or the ingenuity — but the creation.
Lucali skips complex ingredients. These pizzas steer clear of pork belly, runny eggs, black truffles, and grilled lemon. The restaurant succeeds by, and relishes in, forgoing frills. It doesn't need makeup to look good.
Good pizza, you see, is all about restraint.
Which is exactly what diners with small wallets must practice here. There are ways to eke out dinner at Lucali for less than $20 a person — beyond subsisting exclusively on garlic and basil. If you're on a budget, make it a night of small plates and tapas. Invite three friends and plan to share.
Things move slowly here. So begin with one of Lucali's salads: kale caesar or shaved fennel, refreshing bits of the aromatic plant mixed with celery root, shaved pecorino cheese, and parsley. Proceed with a calzone. The folded pizzas, served alongside a plate of Lucali's tomato sauce, hold a rich ricotta filling. Follow with pizza — and go easy on those toppings.
Then splurge, but do so in terms of indulgence, not budget. The best deal on Lucali's concise menu — the Nutella pie, a 24-inch pizza of chocolate-hazelnut spread — is large and costs only $15. The slim crust is sprinkled with powdered sugar and smeared generously with Nutella. Swooshes of ricotta and sprinkled mint finish off the dessert. Split it.
Are you full? Probably. Is this scheming ludicrous? Absolutely. But that's all $20 will get you at Lucali. So when Javier delivers the damage, keep calm and share the bill.
Now you know why folks are abuzz with curiosity: "Have you been to Lucali yet?" "Is it worth the price?" "What's so special about the place?"
Tell them to ask the "Whoo!" girls, the old couple, the new couple, the kid reading a flipbook, Javier, or even me.
What's the big deal? Well, Lucali in Sunset Harbour bakes an utterly flawless pie. And that's what makes it the best pizza in town.