If you don't believe that there's any artistry in food, take a trip out west to Pizaro's Pizza Napoletana and watch pizzaiolo Bill Hutchison at work.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, noon to 8 p.m. Sunday. Caprese salad: $8 Margherita pizza: $12 Arugula and prosciutto pizza: $15 Polpette pizza: $16 Nutella pizza: $8
Read More: Blog: Pizaro's Puts Artistry Into Its Napoletana-Style Pizzas Slideshow: Perfect Pies at Pizaro's Pizza Napoletana
A strikingly modern ballet takes place each day here, as Pizaro's pizzaioli twirl flat rounds of dough into the air and catch them with soft, flour-coated hands outstretched. Behind them, Hutchison — owner and chef — alternates between two long-handled paddles: a wooden one that he uses to gently shuffle one pizza after another into the massive brick oven, and a more spindly copper one that he uses to gently coax out each pizza after it's spent only 90 short seconds cooking at 900 degrees Fahrenheit.
Although there are typically three to four people in that small space between the oven and the counter where pizzaioli roll out and toss the dough, they move together in fluid choreography. I've never once seen a fumble or a crashing turn despite the uptempo pace, and the end result of each day's intricate dance is the best pizza in Houston.
It's refreshing to be able to say something like that — "the best" — without being hyperbolic about the whole thing. Pizaro's Napoletana pizza truly is a thing of wonder, a style of pizza most well-known (and most appreciated) for its spartan spirit. It's made with a few vigorously vetted ingredients and very little else.
For the dough, it's Type 00 flour (a nearly pure white pastry flour with very little whole grain content), Neapolitan yeast, salt and water. Nothing else. It should be kneaded and formed by hand, and no more than 3 millimeters thick before firing in the oven. That oven should be wood-fired to at least 800 degrees, and the pizza should cook for only 60 to 90 seconds. When it emerges, the center will be thin and pliable while the crust will be thicker, with the fluffy texture and yeasty tug of a good piece of naan bread.
On top, only San Marzano tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala Campana — both very specific ingredients that are protected in their home country of Italy by a DOC designation that regulates quality and price — will do for the tomato sauce and cheese. And in order to become a master pie chef (or pizzaiolo), you must not only adhere to these standards for every single pizza you make — you must also be certified through the Naples-based organization Verace Pizza Napoletana (translation: true Neapolitan pizza).
But anyone can adhere to some guidelines, pay a $2,000 initial membership fee and get a VPN certification. "Personally, I've had pizza from VPN-certified pizzerias that has ranged from merely good to really great," wrote Adam Kuban in a June 2011 article on Slice, the pizza-obsessed portion of food megasite Serious Eats. "Because, in the end, you can follow all these guidelines and still turn out a mediocre result."
The real proof of Hutchison's talent is in the pies.
Modesty has been winning out for me lately, both when dining out and when eating at home. I haven't been as attracted to the crazy, complex dishes with a million moving parts as I have been to more straightforward items that are beguiling in their simplicity: lobster rolls at Maine-ly Sandwiches, steak-frites at L'Olivier, a sack of boiled crawfish at LA Crawfish or a bowl of homemade chili at The Chili Shak — dishes made with only a few basic ingredients and a lot of love.
The margherita pizza is the best example of this phenomenon in action at Pizaro's. It's the most basic pizza the Memorial-area restaurant offers, and the best. The simplicity of the pizza is exactly what allows you to focus on the high-quality ingredients that went into it: incredibly sweet San Marzano tomatoes with a bright, tart zing and the creamy, salty dabs of mozzarella di bufala that have a nearly grassy finish to them. Getting to the crust is the best part, however, and I say that as a person who normally discards sandwich crusts and "pizza bones."
The texture of that crust is a marvel every single time. Every. Time. It's springy and bouncy but still marvelously dense, with a chew to it that makes you want to simply close your eyes, shut out everything else around you and concentrate on that blissfully perfect crust. Houstonians aren't necessarily accustomed to baked goods that inspire this much purple prose — we can barely get po-boy bread right most of the time, let alone fancier baked items like croissants — so Pizaro's crust can be something of a revelation. Ah, so this is how amazing flour, water and yeast can taste!
Even with its more ambitious pizzas, Pizaro's never lets the toppings overwhelm the basic ingredients, as with a recent daily special that featured hickory-smoked pork belly with a tinge of maple and a few oven-roasted mushrooms on top. The hickory and maple sweetness of the pork belly was a pleasant contrast against the salty cheese and earthy mushrooms, but you only tasted faint hints of that sweetness in each bite. Any more would have been overkill.
Even a Nutella dessert pizza smartly keeps its wits about it: A plain round of pizza dough is shuffled into the oven, emerging puffy and towering before Hutchison tamps it down with a paddle. Another pizzaiolo comes behind him and smears it nearly edge-to-edge with a spatula full of the chocolate- and hazelnut-flavored spread, which is native to the Piedmont area of Italy. A single sprinkle of confectioner's sugar on top and the dessert pizza is finished — a triumph of warm, melting Nutella and simplicity.
That's not to say that Pizaro's doesn't have the occasional misstep: A spinach- and ricotta-stuffed crust on one version of the margherita pizza sounds amazing in theory but doesn't work in execution. The spinach is clearly fresh, but that also makes it far too watery. The ricotta, too, leaches moisture into the crust while cooking, leaving a crust that's soggy and damp — thereby ruining one of the best parts of the pizza.
Other missteps can occur on the part of the patron rather than Pizaro's. If you insist that your pizza be loaded down with ingredients, you're doing yourself a disservice. The thin-crusted nature of the Napoletana-style pizza means that it can't hold up to a bounty of ingredients. Better to stick with lighter toppings that deliver high-density flavor, like the arugula and prosciutto pizza that's a personal favorite.
The smart customer will also come to Pizaro's equipped with a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer, as the bare-bones counter-service restaurant is BYOB (with no corkage fee). This helps keep costs down — important when a 12-inch pizza starts at $12 and ranges up to $16 or $17 for specialty pies such as the delicate, meatball-topped polpette pizza. A group of four should expect to order at least two pizzas — and I'd throw in a couple of salads and a dessert pizza to split as well — which brings the total cost to around $18 a person. Not bad for a night out.
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At lunch, Pizaro's offers a terrific daytime deal from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in which you can snag an eight-inch personal pizza with one topping and a salad for only $8.99. It also functions as a laid-back cafe where you can easily linger solo at a table with a pizza and a Pellegrino on quieter nights.
On weekends, however, watch out for the marauding hordes of Memorial-area residents who live in the immediate vicinity and bring their kids' entire swim teams to dinner as if Pizaro's were simply a nicer CiCi's Pizza. (I feel comfortable making this observation as a kid who grew up down the street from Pizaro's and was often taken to CiCi's with my entire swim team while our exhausted adult chaperones looked the other way for an hour or so.) Pizaro's can be downright unpleasant on these evenings, and is best enjoyed on weekend afternoons or at weekday dinners.
It's these quiet times, after all, when you can watch Bill Hutchison working side by side with his family: wife Gloria manning the cash register, son Matt tossing dough and delivering pizzas to tables with a sincere smile. During those evenings when the pizzaioli are dancing around each other, flames from the oak-fired oven lighting them from behind, it's easy to see why Hutchison left behind the corporate world to open this small, dedicated, hyper-focused pizzeria in an old suburban strip mall — and why it all works so well.