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Daily Pilot

The Gossiping Gourmet: Margherita fit for a queen

By Elle Harrow and Terry Markowitz

10:15 AM PST, December 12, 2012

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These days, when we are jonesing for pizza, we are confronted with a vast array of choices even before we think about toppings. Are you in the mood for thin crust, thick crust, stuffed crust, cracker crust, deep dish or even flat bread?

The oldest and simplest style of pizza is Neapolitan. The dough is made with nothing but flour, water, salt and yeast, and the simplest version is the Margherita, created in 1889 and named after Margherita, the then-queen of Italy. It consists of red tomato, green basil and white mozzarella, all meant to mimic the colors of the Italian flag. You will find this pie (the true test of good pizza) at NEApolitan, which recently opened in South Laguna.

The old Café Vienna has changed nationalities and been transformed into a modern pizzeria with delicious small plates, excellent Neapolitan-style pizzas, and desserts. The centerpiece is a bright red, state-of-the-art, Stefano Ferrara wood-burning brick oven, shipped directly from Naples.

You can have a lovely meal here without ever tasting their pizza, but as you look at the beautiful pies on neighboring tables with their puffy, blistered crusts, you might be hard-pressed to resist.

We started with two of their small plates and were really blown away. There is some serious cooking going on here. Chef Frank DeLoach does a riff on roasted octopus with the addition of richness from green Castelvetrano olives, saltiness from capers and finely cut strips of lardo (a type of salume), and a bright sweetness from a splash of orange juice and tiny wedges of orange. All this combines with charred rounds of octopus and waxy baby Dutch potatoes to make an outstanding version of a classic dish.

However, chicken wings were far from classic. Buffalo has been left behind and replaced by Sicily. These nicely roasted Jidori wings are strictly Southern Italy, with their rosemary and Calabrian chili flavors. These juicy flappers are smothered with delicious, sweet caramelized onions. They come in a generous heap and fly right off the table.

There is a daily selection of salumi and formaggio, two salads and several other tempting small plates. Anxious to get on to the pizza, we skipped both the hangar steak with salsa verde and fennel béarnaise and the veal meatballs.

Instead, we chose to sample veal meatballs on the NEA pizza.

Piping hot from the wood-fired oven and gorgeous with its spottily charred, fat rim was a thin-crusted Neapolitan-style pie. It tasted as good as it looked. There was a light layer of tomato sauce, dappled with very tasty fresh ricotta and scattered with pieces of nicely seasoned meatballs, scented with marjoram. Each pizza is cut into four generous wedges that are New York-style, the kind you can fold over if you choose.

We felt we had to try a straight Margherita, as it is the real test of the crust, the tomato sauce and the cheese. High marks for all three. In particular, we were delighted with the sauce, which was beautifully fresh-tasting and perfectly balanced with sweet and savory overtones. The white mozzarella melted in rounds, providing just the right amount of cheese, while a light drizzle of olive oil brought it all together.

For dessert, we chose the fall apple tart. It was the salty caramel sauce that made it worth eating. The pastry was the commercial puff type and the apples were without much flavor on their own, but oh, that sauce!

NEApolitan prides itself on using locally and naturally sourced products, organic whenever possible.

They have done a nice job of remodeling this small restaurant, changing the color scheme to a more modern gray and black with red accents and adding a white-tiled kitchen/bar area with a wall of wine bottles and tall stools. There is a heated patio as well.

We are happy to have this new, reasonably priced restaurant in Laguna Beach.

ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at m_markowitz@cox.net.

Neapolitan

Where: 31542 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach

When: Noon to 10 p.m. daily

Prices:

Small plates: $8 to $16

Pizza: $13 to $18

Desserts: $7 to $8

Beer: Draught, $5 to $6.50

Bottles, $6 to $42

Wine:

Glass: $7 to $22

Bottle: $19 to $84

Corkage fee: $15

Information: (949) 499-4531 or nealaguna.com