Atlanta likes to think of itself as the New York City of the South—or rather, as a southern alternative to New York. Unfortunately, outside of the southeastern United States, Atlanta doesn’t get mentioned in the same breath as New York. When global cities or cities of influence are rattled off by tastemakers, Atlanta simply doesn’t rank with New York, Chicago, San Francisco.
This is especially obvious in the realm of on-the-street fashion. When walking around New York, I often respond to the ensembles of my fellow pedestrians with the thought, “I want to wear THAT!” A really superb outfit elicits “I want to wear that RIGHT NOW!” and the most outstanding provoke me to almost shout “I want to wear that EVERY DAY!” This almost never happens in Atlanta – which is not to say that Atlantans don’t know how to dress. In fact, if one were to gather at random 20 Atlantans and 20 New Yorkers in a room, I would even wager that the Atlantans would be, on average, more put-together than the New Yorkers – the difference is just that the moments of brilliance are so much fewer.
In truth, while I’m on the topic, I really wish Atlanta would stop comparing herself to New York at all. To make the comparison and conclude that Atlanta doesn’t measure up, underrates Atlanta’s own particular joys. Atlanta and New York are two very different types of cities – though I’ve yet to articulate a satisfying taxonomy of cities – and to look at one against the other is misleading. Better, I think, to celebrate Atlanta for what she is: incredibly green and way too hot.
One can hardly expect then, that for all of her excellent restaurants, Atlanta might actually be the home of a pizzeria so brilliant it outshines New York. Visiting Atlanta after living in New York, I was shocked to find a pizza that could sweep me off my feet so handily. But it did, in a way that no pizza in Manhattan or Brooklyn was able to. Does it sound like I’m talking about love affair? That might be appropriate.
I may have begun an affair with Varasano’s Pizzeria, but I’m willing to share. Varasano’s is the brainchild of Jeff Varasano, a native of the Bronx, who embarked on an odyssey to recreate the pie at Patsy’s (in Manhattan on First Avenue between 117th and 118th) when he moved to Atlanta several years ago. As Jeff’s pizza expertise grew, he began hosting underground pizza tastings at his home in Atlanta. These tastings proved so popular – drawing pizza enthusiasts from far and wide – that the waitlist grew to be several months long. Finally, Varasano opened his pizzeria to the public in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood in early 2009.
Varasano’s is a restaurant rooted not in trendy “gourmet” ingredients, but in the excellent execution of traditional elements. Technique is king. The pizzas are “flash baked” in only about 3 minutes. Once the sauce is applied to the dough, the pie has to be in the oven within a matter of seconds. This is a pizza crust so precise that it requires an oven heated to over 800 degrees. The dough recipe is no secret; Jeff Varasano freely shares it on his website, though even reading all of his detailed instructions requires more stamina than I can spare for pizza crust. The recipe may be intimidating, but it is not a scientific formula or secret ingredient which guarantees success; it is the craft of kneading and forming the dough, of letting it rest the appropriate amount of time, of rigging your oven to an absurdly high temperature, that makes all the difference.
Varasano’s pizza demands to be eaten with similar attention to detail. Jeff Varasano strongly discourages patrons from carrying out his pizza as the few minutes’ delay dramatically alters the experience. Like an espresso, the pizza best consumed immediately. This pizza is a work of art, and as C.S. Lewis famously reminded us, “the first demand any work of art makes upon us is to surrender.” Not an unpleasant demand, mind you, simply the demand to pay attention, to appreciate the nuance of a perfect crust, to savor the flavor of Mozzarella di Bufala rather than inhale a gooey mess of cheese. Encountering the pie, one can’t help but feel that one owes it to the pizza to take note of its subtleties, to smell with intentionality, to taste with gratitude and wonder.
The pie represents a balancing act of sorts. The crust is slightly charred and yet, springy, fold-able. It’s thin, but not crispy and brittle like so many California-style pizzas. Toppings are added sparingly so as not to overpower the delicate crust. Perfect portions of mozzarella dot the top of the pizza so that the cheese can be savored. I know some may argue that one can never have too much cheese on a pizza, but I’m of the mind that too many pizzas nearly choke one with a weighty mess of cheese blanketing the pie. I’d like to be able to taste the crust and sauce, if you please.
Varasano’s includes sandwiches on their lunch menu. I’m sure they’re lovely, but lets skip to the pizzas, shall we? Nana’s leads the pack, a very traditional cheese and tomato sauce pizza with Italian herbs. You may be tempted to skip straight to the Margherita, but I caution you not to deprive yourself of the glories of the Nana’s. Add pepperoni for a pie that reminds you of what a pepperoni pizza should be. Before the Nana’s I didn’t know what I had been missing, but now I know how to judge the most pedestrian of pizzas—the pepperoni. The Margherita, of course, deserves your attention as well, as it is the pie by which one should judge a pizzeria. Spring for the Mozzarella di Bufala; you won’t be disappointed.
Perhaps most surprising to me was the genius of the Caramelized Onion pizza. When I first saw this on the menu, sweet caramelized onions with sharp Emmenthaler cheese, I feared it would be what Jeff calls “fake pizza”—a mishmash of “gourmet” ingredients that really don’t belong anywhere near a pizza all brought together by a vaguely pizza-like disk of dough. I should never have doubted. The combination of caramelized onions, Emmanthaler cheese, and fresh thyme is an absolute revelation. As is always the case at Varasano’s, the cheese is doled out with admirable restraint, creating just the right proportions of sharpness, sweetness, and savory-ness. Perfectly balanced. This is not a pizza to be missed. The Chica Bella rounds out my list of must-tries at Varasano’s. The famous Varasano’s crust is baked with ricotta and mozzarella and then topped with fresh arugula and lemon juice when it comes out of the oven. It is a lovely counterpoint to a traditional pepperoni pie.
Can I convey in mere words what it means to surrender to a pizza? Pizza is a food regularly taken for granted, available on street corners and in supermarket freezers. It is the food of college gatherings and children’s birthday parties. It is a food as familiar as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. How much more then should we celebrate the incarnation of a pizza that whispers of what pizza is meant to be – unassuming in its delivery, shocking in its depth of flavor; what a delight to discover that I never knew what pizza was at all!
Indeed, the unexpected suitor is often the one who prevails. I found New York’s best pizza in Atlanta, and my heart shall not be moved from Varasano’s.