To pizza purists the last decade or so has been a nightmare. First pizza was taken out of Italian pizzerias and put into shopping mall food courts and kiddie arcades. Then chain restaurants like Pizza Hut, Little Caesar's, Papa John's, and Domino's began competing with each other intensely, offering novelties like the foot-long pizza, the stuffed-crust pizza, the pan pizza, and the brushed-crust pizza. Monstrosities, one and all.
Or so I've been told by the average pizza snob, who thinks the only good pizza is a "real" pizza -- the twice-baked New York kind, which, in turn, is most like those found in Naples, Italy. The truth is, Italians didn't invent pizza, a corruption of the Latin word picea, meaning the burnt stuff on the underside of the dough (a result of cooking over ashes). The Greeks invented it. They got the idea from the Etruscans, who baked tons of focaccia to use as plates, and did the Etruscans one better by cooking the meal (meats and vegetables) and the plate (bread) together. Voilà -- pizza.
But while Neapolitans can't take credit for coming up with pizza, they can claim to have improved it. For one thing, they thought of adding the now-traditional tomatoes, which were brought back to Spain from South and Central America in the 16th Century and were long considered poisonous. Then in 1889 Raffaele Esposito melted mozzarella and scattered basil over the top of the tomatoes in honor of the colors of the new Italian flag.
The rest is pizza history: Italian pizza makers, known as pizzaiolos, went wild with variations, outdoing each other with different and more exotic combinations that included stuffing the crust with cheeses and meats, brushing it with herbs and olive oil, and rolling it into different shapes. In short, ideas like Pizza Hut's "new" stuffed crust are really throwbacks to true pizza making. But pizzaiolos don't live only in Italy. Vito Maffei, who opened Vito's Gourmet Pizza at the Promenade Shops in Fort Lauderdale last month, has been turning out genuine pizzas for the past two decades.
Maffei became a pizzaiolo via his father, also a pizza maker originally from Bari, Italy. While Maffei's dad Tony was content to be a neighborhood pizza chef in Rockland County in New York, where Maffei grew up, Maffei had higher ambitions. The eldest son in a family of eight (he has two older sisters), he struck out on his own when he was 20 years old, naming his first pizza joint Vito & Michael's. (Michael, his then-newborn baby brother, is currently 21.) Then Maffei opened two more pizzerias in New York, another in New Jersey, and four in Florida, including locations in Boca Raton, Tamarac, and Fort Lauderdale.
But three years ago he got out of the pizza biz, selling all his shops. He even sold the rights to the name Vito & Michael's to further disassociate himself. "I was tired," he says. "I wanted to travel, to hang out." But he admits he had "too good a time" and decided to re-enter the fray with his new pizza shop. In other words he ran out of dough, so to speak.
Am I glad he did! Maffei has a great touch with pizza dough, which he tosses by hand, stretches into 10-, 12-, or 16-inch pies, and bakes on pizza stones in his ovens. But if a pizzaiolo's style is as identifiable as his fingerprints, Maffei's products, which on the surface look the same, are as variable as snowflakes. For first-timers Vito's menu may be confusing. He offers the pizza connoisseur a tempting array of topping combinations -- nearly 40 of 'em, from chicken and roasted pepper, to Muenster cheese and basil, to shrimp and broccoli. You can order any of these in either the "super thin and crispy" or the "pan" version, the latter being a deep-dish square pizza infused with olive oil. We enjoyed a 16-inch pan pizza "seafood combo" topped with tiny bay shrimp, surimi, garlic butter, mozzarella, and plum tomatoes. I could have done without the fake crab but was pleased to bite down on tangy capers in the sauce.
To make matters more complicated, you can have the pizza made with one of Maffei's two flavored doughs: tomato-basil or pesto-garlic. He was out of the flavored doughs the days I visited, so I settled, if it can be put that way, for the crusts brushed with garlic-herb, Parmesan, or pesto flavorings, another option for an extra buck or so. I thought the garlic-herb was especially appropriate for the 12-inch "spinaci," a thin and crispy pie topped with spinach and pesto.
In addition, for another two or three dollars (depending on size), Maffei stuffs crusts with a choice of ricotta and mozzarella; spinach, ricotta, and mozzarella; or pepperoni, ricotta, and mozzarella. We had him stuff the crust of our "formaggio supreme" -- laden with pepperoni, sliced black olives, pesto, and mozzarella -- with ricotta and mozzarella, and it was a good call; the creamy ooze inside the crust was an ideal contrast to the pie's crunchy texture.
The ultimate stuffed crust, of course, is a calzone. Calzone, which means "pants leg," is also known as a folded pizza or turnover in the States, and in parts of Italy it's recognized as a mezzaluna (half-moon). The calzones at Vito's Gourmet Pizza look more like rolled pizzas, with mozzarella, ricotta, and Parmesan cheese bubbling out of both ends. Whatever you want to call it, it's fabulous.
I'm a politically correct and ethnically diverse pizza lover, and I won't turn my nose up at a wedge of Sicilian pan pizza or a California-style pizza strewn with broccoli. I especially enjoyed Vito's vegetable combo, because Maffei sautes the eggplant, broccoli, spinach, and tomato with a little garlic before he ladles it onto a ricotta-smeared crust. He also roasts his own peppers, which were delicious on the Italian antipasto, brightening the diced soppressata and prosciutto as well as chopped romaine and sliced black olives. His chicken, which he also cooks himself, is of the highest quality and was wonderfully tender over a just-tossed caesar salad with homemade focaccia croutons.
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Salads and focaccia sandwiches, incidentally, are the only offerings besides pizza. And while the green-and-white tables are clean and shiny, there aren't many of them. Maffei will soon add several more tables outside, however, and he plans to acquire a beer-and-wine license by May. If you're not up for eating at the restaurant, Vito's does deliver.
Like any other transplant, I still get the NYPD blues: the hankering for honest-to-goodness New York Pizza Delivery. I crave that thin, crisp crust, the tender, stringy cheese, the olive oil drizzled over the top of the pie, so hot from the oven it blisters my mouth. Take away all Vito Maffei's toppings, and you're left with that elusive New York-style pizza for which the purists are forever searching. At Vito's Gourmet Pizza, consider it found.
Vito's Gourmet Pizza. 6212 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale, 954-772-7701. Lunch and dinner daily from 11:30 a.m. till 11 p.m; Friday and Saturday until midnight.
Medium cheese pizza
Small formaggio supreme
Large pan pizza seafood combo