The Great White Pizza
Kamal Alnasleh throws another log on the fire. The owner and head chef of La Barmigiana is preparing the melanzane pizza I ordered. This is my third visit to the restaurant, and I think I've finally figured this place out. I lean on the counter, watching him alternate between flipping dough and spinning the pizzas already cooking in the brick oven. The flatbreads blacken quickly along the edges, so they require a lot of attention, but the payoff is a wonderfully crispy crust.
"How hot is the oven?" I ask Alnasleh.
"Around 800 degrees," he says.
La Barmigiana's menu advertises "a new concept in wood burning ovens." But if you peer inside the round brick enclosure, all you see is a regular fireplace grate sitting on a cement floor. At the moment, there's a steel bowl full of eggplants roasting in there next to the pizzas.
Melanzane means eggplant, but Alnasleh doesn't put any on my pizza -- actually, it's an odd half-pizza, half-calzone creation, made by folding part of the pizza over on itself. Alnasleh folds some onions and sun-dried tomatoes in the calzone pocket and sprinkles more on the flat side before sliding the pie into place with the long-handled baking sheet called a peel. It's done in an amazingly short time. Only after the dough has been baked to a perfect crunchy crust does Alnasleh fetch some roasted eggplant out of the oven and spread some of the soft flesh across the pizza. Then he adds a touch of mushroom sauce. I sit down and dig in.
There are lots of yeast bubbles in the crust, and some on the edge have turned a little black in the superhot oven. The eggplant is slick and wet with the mushroom cream sauce, and the sun-dried tomatoes add a lovely saltiness. But it's the crust that captivates me. I can hear the crunch every time I bite it. This is the best pizza I've had in Houston.
So I order another one -- this time a pizza parmigiana, which comes with fresh tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, pesto and prosciutto. The second pizza is almost as good as the first. The olive oil in the pesto helps keep the crust crisp. Unfortunately, the prosciutto is applied in four large slices that come off when you try to bite into them, but that's a pretty small quibble. The individual-sized pizzas are just right for a meal. I eat half of each and take the other halves home for further study.
La Barmigiana's pizza and calzone menu shows signs of genius. Alnasleh, who is half Italian and half Jordanian, learned how to make pizza from his Italian grandma. The pizza maker has carefully chosen the ingredients on each pizza to keep the crusts crisp. There is no "meat lover's special" overloaded with cheap cold cuts. High-quality provolone or fresh mozzarella is applied judiciously. And of the ten pizzas on the menu, only three have pizza sauce. That's how Alnasleh turns out such a fabulous crunchy crust: He avoids the pitfalls of soupy sauce, runny cheese and overabundant meats.
Most American pizza eaters judge a pie by how much they get for their money. Hence, pizza piled high with cheap ingredients has become the national norm. But if you pile this crap on a good, yeasty crust, the excess moisture seeps into the bubbly texture and turns it soggy. To compensate, pizza makers have had to deflate their crusts. First, the dough is underproofed, which means the yeast action is retarded through refrigeration so the dough rises very little. Then, after the dough is stretched to its final size, it's punctured with a spiked rolling pin to remove any remaining yeast bubbles, in a process called docking. The result is a flexible, thin crust that has no yeast bubbles to get crispy but can stand up to an unlimited load of lunch meat.
In Northern Italy, on the other hand, pizza is a yeasty flatbread with a scattering of simple flavorings on top. These are often called pizze bianche, or "white pizzas," because they're made without red sauce. La Barmigiana, which is named for the Northern Italian hamlet of Barma, where Kamal Alnasleh's family is from, has brought the Northern Italian white-pizza style to FM 1960. Along with his roasted eggplant pizza, there's one with nothing but artichokes and a little tomato and onion; another with mushrooms, peas and green peppers; and several simple pies with combinations of pesto, cheese and a single ingredient. When creamy sauces are used, they are ladled over the crispy pizza after it comes out of the oven.
It's a good thing Alnasleh is so talented with his brick oven, because in most other ways La Barmigiana restaurant is laughably pathetic.
Except for the awful shade of orange, the fettuccine gamberetti I had on my first visit to La Barmigiana was very good. The wide noodles and plump shrimp were well coated with the rich and creamy tomato and mushroom sauce. Unfortunately, bizarre lighting gave the dish a weirdly artificial hue. The restaurant is lit entirely by the kind of cheap fluorescent fixtures you find in office buildings. In an effort to soften the harsh glare, the standard white diffusion filters have been replaced by red, green and rose ones. The effect is a shift in the color spectrum that can be either comical or nauseating, depending on what you're looking at.
"This place is so romantic," giggled my date, whose blond hair now had a green tinge. It was the first time I had taken her out to dinner. The restaurant was highly recommended by a reader, but I looked it up on the Internet just to be sure. The description I found at dinesite.com promised "city and skyline views from many seats" as well as "fountains" and a "romantic atmosphere." La Barmigiana turned out to be located next to a Mexican carnicería in a rundown shopping center with no view of anything except the other side of FM 1960. My date, a notorious wiseass we'll call Ms. W, tried briefly and unsuccessfully to stifle her sarcasm.
Before long, Ms. W was helpfully pointing out the details of La Barmigiana's decor for this review: The fountain is a plastic pool in the back with fake marble statuettes. A couple of tables sit under "gazebos" made of unpainted two-by-fours covered with plastic grapevines. There are lots of potted plants on the dividers that separate the tables; I wondered if it was some kind of ivy. "That's known as the Department of Motor Vehicles plant," Ms. W cracked. "It's noted for its ability to grow absolutely anywhere."
She ordered the eggplant parmigiana, which turned out to be passable, although the spaghetti served on the side was pretty dull. A sad salad of browning lettuce and mealy tomato came with what she described as a congealed dressing in the middle. "Have you ever noticed the way embossed vinyl retains a little grime in the grooves every time you wash it, allowing a patina to accumulate?" Ms. W mused as she ran her fingers over the raised floral pattern of our tablecloth. I had promised her that this romantic Italian restaurant was going to be worth the drive from her Inner Loop neighborhood. And now she was giving me the ribbing I deserved.
Luckily, on that first visit, I ordered a salsiccia calzone as an afterthought. The loose sausage was not at all to my liking; it tasted more like hamburger than sausage. But there was a quality about the crust that made me hopeful.
So I dragged Ms. W back to La Barmigiana for an early dinner one evening before we had to pick up a friend at Bush Intercontinental. I figured that the sun would still be bright enough to counteract the bad lighting, and we could order a pizza.
To our chagrin, the restaurant turned out to be equipped with heavy curtains to keep the sunlight out; it seems the "romantic" lights are on at all times. But even the sardonic Ms. W had to agree that the pepperoni pizza was very good. The crust was pocked with gorgeous dark brown crunchy spots and sparingly topped with sliced sausage and just enough provolone and mozzarella to keep it interesting. And the seafood calzone, stuffed with scallops, shrimp, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts and mozzarella in a creamy sauce, was nothing short of spectacular. As my final visit would confirm, La Barmigiana makes some of the best Northern Italian white pizzas and puffy calzones in the city.
La Barmigiana didn't turn out to be the kind of Italian restaurant I thought it was. And although the mere mention of the place still sends Ms. W into fits of laughter, I would not recommend it as an intimate place for a first date. I do recommend it, however, as a sensational brick-oven pizzeria -- made all the more lovable by its unconsciously hideous decor.
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