For the majority of Naptownies who don't regularly cavort in the Carmel area, it's almost downright ornery of one of the city's celebrity chefs to have located his long-awaited pizzeria in what many would consider "deep" Carmel.
But is it worth the drive?
Pizzology is Neal Brown's locavore-tinged take on Neapolitan pizza, with all the traditional trappings - the 800-degree oven; thin, chewy/crispy crust with charred spots; emphasis on San Marzano tomatoes and mozzarella (though Brown eschews the Italian stuff for curds from Trader's Point creamery). And, of course, the traditional pizzaiolo, whose lot in life is tending to these round masterpieces.
The pizzaiolo isn't Neal, but his sous chef from L'explorateur. Brown says he's been studying the traditional way to make pizza in Naples all summer long, but that it's a continual work in progress.
I can assure you that there will be people who don't get it. Who come in expecting something more like Chicago-style cracker crust despite what they've been told, and who think the prices offer a lot more marginal breathing room than they do. Consider the lunch offering with pizzetti, drink and soup for $6 [!]. If this doesn't bring a lunch crowd to suburbia, then nobody should put any more restaurants in the Hazel Dell area, period.
But of course, that just means more for you and me.
On my first trip to the restaurant, I was greeted by a waiter with long, slicked hair who looked a cigarette and beret away from the French streetside. He spoke with authority in describing menu options, although there was some static when it came to the toppings on the pie deemed "Homemade Sausage." My cohort, usually stalwartly against the balls of meat, had been sold on the waiter's promise of "hot and sweet peppers" on the pie, when perhaps he had been describing the dynamic traits of only the roasted sweet peppers, which did have some fire.
The beer lineup is artfully simple and good, like everything else in the place. They have a full bar, but I ordered Two Brothers' Domaine Dupage, a malty, bready and bubbly ale whose versatility would have gone with most anything in the joint. I received decidedly different Upland Wheat, but didn't speak up. My fault.
The pizza ($13, all [except for build-it-yourself]) came in its big 13-inch tray, puffy charred edges spilling over. The char is the proof that the crust has been perfectly cooked in the 800-degree oven -- proof that stayed under my fingernails for the next day.
First bite was chewy, with emphasis on the fine balance of ingredients. I can certainly appreciate the delicate and deliberate placement of such heavenly vittles like homemade sausage, perfectly caramelized figs or oil-cured olives. Brown selects his ingredients like the Christian God selected his people for earth.
Too dramatic? Let's continue: There were four players on the stage of my pizza Bianca (white pizza): caramelized figs, crispy arugula, proscuitto, and extra virgin olive oil. They danced best in twos. The ubersalty proscuitto balanced the syrupy sweet figs, and the robust olive oil brought out the earthiness of the arugula, which tasted a lot like crispy Brussels sprouts.
The sausage slice has grown on me. I had originally considered my own pie the tastier of the two, feeling that there weren't enough roasted red peppers or sausage on the other to make it as interesting or flavorful. But the next day, when the slices were reborn as chewy, cold breakfast, I found myself gravitating more toward those electric peppers, with their spicy bite and sugary sweetness, and the carefully formed sausage, sans gristle but with just enough flavorful fennel.
This is the beauty of Pizzology's pies: Like any other piece of art, they take time to fully appreciate. Like a song you must hear repeatedly before it strikes a chord, or a classic book that must be read with patience, you will eventually come to adore this somewhat foreign fare — and be more worldly for it.
And like a lovestruck schoolgirl with singular attentions, I must admit that I've largely eschewed all the wonderful possible permutations of salads, soups and pasta dishes on the menu for the seemingly endless artisan pies. I did manage to try Brown's take on pappardelle & Bolognese ($7, small), and it's exactly what you'd expect from the restaurant's seriously traditional standpoint — rustic, robust and meaty, with lovely homemade pappardelle noodles.
Whereas L'explorateur seemed a special occasion restaurant, Brown has struck the perfect medium of creativity and accessibility in his latest venture. I welcome him as a permanent fixture to the neighborhood (17 miles north of my house).