Visa-O1, South Beach's Most Interesting Pizzeria, Expanding to Wynwood

Renato Viola's signature pizzas aren't suited for delivery or take-out. Here's the problem: You order the vegetarian Star Michele ($14.90) or spicy salami-flecked Star Luca ($14.90), and by the time the celestial-shaped beauty hits your kitchen table, its delicate crunch has been lost.

The hassle of parking and finding Viola's minuscule Visa-O1 hidden away in a Miami Beach office building is worth it. The pies pulled from the stone-lined Cuppone oven come with semisturdy centers that you can fold if you like. Crusts are dotted with char. They are perhaps the perfect marriage of Naples' ultra-thin and crisp-crusted and New York City's utilitarian slices.

And soon you may not have to hunt so hard to find it — the restaurant is planning an outpost, slated to open in Wynwood next year.

Renato, now 34, began making pizzas at the age of 11. A year earlier, his family moved from Switzerland to Agropoli, a dot of a town on Italy's Mediterranean coast about two hour's drive south of Naples. There, in neighborhood pizzerias, he was hypnotized by the ballet of stretching dough and fluttering toppings. A cousin got him his first job negotiating the flow of pies in and out of the oven for 5,000 lire (the disused Italian currency now worth about two and a half euro) a day. "I didn't even want the money; I just wanted to be there," Viola says.

At 17, he began taking classes at a local culinary institute before setting off on a nationwide odyssey of bouncing through kitchens and classrooms in Naples, Rome, Venice, and Milan. Soon he began competing in pizza-making contests across the country, racking up the collection of hardware that stuffs his small office a few floors above his Miami Beach pizzeria.

The star pizza was a cocktail napkin kind of idea he threw together in 2008 for a competition in Monaco. It's a simple proposition: Eight slits are cut into the edge of stretched dough. A slice of salami topped with a hefty swirl of ricotta is deposited on each of the eight points. Then the dough is folded over as you would a paper airplane, creating eight small dough pockets that ooze rich cheese into a center of tangy San Marzano tomato sauce.

Nearly 10,000 recipes were submitted for the competition. They were pared down to 100, whose originators were invited to Milan and later 25 brought to Monaco to cook their creations. "I'd never actually made it before Monaco," Viola says. The first rendition was topped with ingredients commonplace on the Cilento Coast, which surrounds Agropoli: mozzarella di bufala, an ultra-dense dried salami, porcini mushrooms, and the smoked-and-dried mozzarella called scamorza.

Over the past seven years, the recipe has been tweaked, most prominently the dough. It's a custom blend from Parma that Viola has concocted from the 00 flour that is the standard of Neapolitan pies and others "with different amount of proteins," he says. He uses just a pinch of yeast (three grams for every 45 kilos of flour) and lets the dough rise for up to 96 hours, resulting in a crisp yet light crust that's easy to digest.

The pie itself is also wonderfully balanced with only a handful of toppings. Though the star shape may seem like a gimmick, it's also an Italian's answer to that dubious, Middle America affinity for dipping crust crescents into Ranch dressing. Ricotta is far superior.

It's good enough to even outsell the ubiquitous cheese pizza. "I've never seen something like it before," Viola says. It's also given him the resources to expand Visa-O1.

He's signed a lease for a space that will seat about 36 on North Miami Avenue at NW 23rd Street, at the southern end of Wynwood. Plans are to open sometime in mid-2016.  

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Zachary Fagenson became the New Times Broward-Palm Beach restaurant critic in 2012 before taking up the post for Miami in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson