Do you sometimes feel like you live in Pizzami? Well, if you've been following the munchings and musings of local food bloggers and Twitterites lately, it's hard not to. There's been a flood -- er, fireball -- of new, gourmet pizza joints opening up across town, and not a moment too soon. For so long, a good pie meant hauling hulking, par-cooked Vito's down from God-knows-where to be finished off in a sufficient yet frankly inadequate gas oven at home.
But maybe that's the brilliance of bread meeting silken tomato and melting cheese. Can we ever really get enough?
So here's a thin crust pizza lover's assessment of Pizza Volante, a Design District production by Pacific Time's Jonathan Eismann, and Casale Pizzeria and Mozzarella Bar from Pietro Vardeu of Sardinia on SoBe. These two newbies present mozzarella in more ways than one usually sees on Miami menus.
In addition to the most basic form, the margherita (mastery of which is a must at any respectable pizzeria,) we'll sample the new kid on the block: the customizable mozzarella experience.
Pizza Volante's Wood Fired Margherita Pizza ($9) - Italian tomato, cow's milk mozzarella and basil
Mozzarella Parlor - Choice of mozzarella di bufala D.O.P, Campagna, Italy ($9 for 4 oz.); burrata sangue dolce D.O.P, Italy ($10 for 1/2 piece, $19 whole piece); locally made cow's milk varieties nodini, ovaline, fler de latte, piccolo cillegine and ovoline ($7 for 5 oz.) Comes with choice of two accompaniments including Florida tomatoes, organic arugula, organic spinach, zucchini fritti, zucchini salad, caponata, macaroni pesto, wood roasted local vegetables, vegetable mustarda, olives and capers, sweet roasted peppers, and fennel.
Pros: As for the pizza, I have no major complaints on the crust, which is cooked well enough and flaunts an evenly speckled underbelly. Also, it's just a personal preference, but I love basil so a chiffonade lets you enjoy a little with each bite.
Pizza Volante's mozzarella is of high quality and best savored in raw form. Eismann supports local dairy farmers by offering Pompano Beach-based Mozzarita products, made with milk from local cows. The result is a creamy cheese that has a lovely consistency when served slightly below room temp. They also import the Orzo brand of bufala and burrata from Italy. Other cheese was supposed to be coming from Vermont, but the farm closed due to hard economic times. Along with balsamic vinegar of the same origin, the unfiltered extra virgin olive oil drizzled on top before service is from Academia Barilla (the Italian artisanal product/R&D/education/marketing arm of the Barilla Group.) It's not fancy, nuanced stuff, but packs a wonderfully mellow fruit flavor that plays well with the richness of the snow white curd. Arugula and Florida tomatoes were tasty and fresh - perfect colorful sidekicks for the cheese.
Cons: I have a few issues with the margherita pizza. First is saltiness, both tomato sauce and cheese are at fault. Also, the sauce, made in-house with cooked San Marzano tomatoes, was too acidic. The cheese selection is inconsistent i.e. on a recent visit they were out of a few of the varieties. Also, my server was very friendly, but there was a lack of product knowledge that -- even at a casual eatery -- I have a problem with. Especially if it's a casual eatery from an acclaimed chef.
In case you are wondering: Volante is an eat in/take out/delivery establishment with meter parking usually available on the avenue. A budget-friendly selection of wines by the glass and bottle is a welcome feature, and the case of mozzarella proudly proclaiming "Eat Mozzarella," a fun touch. Modern Italian appointments like contemporary orange chairs and communal tables are inviting. So are the chalkboard menus. The pizza-making process is somewhat hidden from view.
Casale's Margherita ($11) - Tomato, bufaline and basil
Mozzarella & Burrata Bar - Choice of bufala Campana, burrata pugliese, fior di latte, stracciatella, sfoglia di burrata (of the day,) treccione, and mozzarella in carrozza ($14 per portion) or Grand Tasting ($24 for sampling of all except "in carrozza.") Also comes with choice of two accompaniments including cannellini beans salad, eggplant pesto, stringbeans, prosciutto di Parma, bresaola, grape tomatoes, rapini with guanciale, roasted peppers, heirloom tomatoes, baby zucchini with mint, Cetara anchovies, roasted asparagus, caponata, and oven roasted cherry tomatoes.
Pros: Casale's pizza is pretty darn close to perfect. The crust, which isn't usually something I get excited about, is enthralling. The dough, tender and with just the right amount of yeasty elasticity, is fired off to a magnificent blister in the wood-burning ovens. A thin application of sauce is full of tomato-ness.
I don't mind paying a little more for this pizza. Why? Because they top it with the real deal: buffalo mozzarella from Campagna. It turns out that what at first appears to be not enough cheese is the right amount, because it's so rich and flavorful. This may have something to do with the fact that these folks are Italian and know the best products to import. They're also making a local cow's milk variety, as well as an oozy, decadent burrata, in the back of the house. They pull this off with skill, (they also plan to do it wholesale in the future with real buffalo milk,) and the restaurant in turn does not face the problem of erratic supply.
The mozzarella bar's accompaniments feel a little more inspired than the selection at Volante, both in ingredients and preparation. In addition to points for cannellini beans, it's a big plus that there are a couple of cured meats listed here. Generous portions make for a happy and satisfied dining experience.
Cons: Honestly, I find it difficult to fault the dishes up for review in this installment. Sure, the pizzaiolo cut the pizza in four rather large slices to handle, and the basil is whole. But who cares. I guess it also would have been nice to see the mozzarella "bar" actually present in the restaurant i.e. in the front of the house for all to marvel, like with the pizza ovens.
In case you are wondering: Casale just opened so they have a few service kinks to work out. My server, however, was very attentive and knowledgeable. And it is nice to see Vardeu taking his rightful place as expediter, finishing squeeze bottle of olive oil in hand, making sure all product is up to standard. The restaurant seats 130 in an ample and open dining room, also with a long bar where you can pull up a seat to watch the pizza show in front of the ovens (with a glass barrier to protect you from the heat.) On a visit this past Sunday, though the place had only been open only one day, clusters of young SoBe families packed in early to get a taste of what is sure to become a neighborhood favorite like sister Sardinia. The singles and pet-toting crowd as well should appreciate Casale's sultry, leather-appointed second floor indoor/outdoor lounge. Upstairs can seat 100 and serves the full menu. Casale will be beginning lunch service on Sunday, but for this week they are opening at 6 p.m.
The Verdict: By now it's no secret that Casale's pizza and mozzarella are the tomato of our eye, and we can't wait to dive into the rest of the menu.
3918 North Miami Ave.
Miami (Design District)
Casale Pizzeria and Mozzarella Bar
1800 Bay Rd