An Italian tradition, massive oven at
"I am so happy right now," he says.
He's just had his first bite of a "Marilyn" pizza from Dola Pizzeria Napoletana, the latest restaurant concoction from 20 Railroad Public House partners Benjamin Downing and Laura Shack, who is also the culinary brains behind Firefly in Lenox.
But Dola, which opened two weeks ago, is Downing's baby. For two years he tinkered with dough, experimenting to perfect Neapolitan-style pizza, a specialty of Naples, Italy, the original "birthplace of pizza as we know it today," he said.
While renovating and opening 20 Railroad two years ago, he and Shack knew they would eventually bust open a wall of the rear storage room, and open up the wall in the alley between Railroad Street and the Triplex Cinema lot.
Downing obsessively honed his skills, making pizza trial runs using a home oven built by friends. He used traditional techniques, and flour and other ingredients from Naples.
But there was one thing missing: an authentic Neapolitan wood-fired oven.
At 6,300 pounds, it is a masterpiece from Naples, hand-built by artisans at third-generation oven company, Acunto Mario.
"It took a day to get it in place, and six guys," Downing said, watching the dinner companion rejoice over the "Chris," a red sauce pizza with mozzarella, arugula, prosciutto di parma and a balsamic reduction.
The dinner companion is a food critic, not by profession, but by desire, and is now remarking on the constitution and structure of the crust.
It is thin — crispy on the bottom, soft on the top, puffy at the edge. It's a bit blistered with some light charring that doesn't cross into bitter-land. It's a simple pleasure that requires extraordinary labor, skill, equipment and intuitive prowess.
"How does it get like this?" The Eagle asks, wondering at why the crust remains crispy, and the toppings cooked just enough.
It's mostly the oven, which Downing keeps at 900 degrees.
"The walls are thick and retain heat," Downing says. "The residual heat vents in the front so the [oven's] dome makes a convection of flames and heat. The heat moves."
It also takes skill to know where in the oven to put the pizza. Because of the temperature differentials inside, the pizza maker has to get a feel for it, so the dough gets a proper base and rise without burning.
"These ovens require a finesse — you're constantly learning your oven. It's a dance."
Downing, 34, has worked in restaurants since he was 14. Now he's aiming to perfect a traditional pizza with long-standing techniques and ingredients. He also uses an Italian fork mixer that turns the dough in a hand-mimicking way without friction that could change its chemistry.
But the Neapolitan pizza craze that has now, with Dola, migrated here from New York, is perhaps yet another yearning for authenticity, a market that in the food world has strong roots in the Berkshires, considered the farm-to-table birthplace.
Known for his passion for local and regionally-sourced food at 20 Railroad, Downing will, for Dola, use local ingredients when possible, like a sopressata from meat-curer, Jacuterie. But there will be no debate about the Antimo Caputo "00" flour and the tomatoes, both of which hail from Naples.
His imported San Marzano tomatoes, for instance, are the real deal, grown in the volcanic soil in the foothills of Mount Vesuvius.
"That's what gives them their flavor," he said.
Right now, Dola offers six red sauce and three white (no tomato sauce) pizzas, all 12 inches, which is the traditional size.
The menu allows one to move up the scale of complexity and price — to start with the $12 "Shelly," a tomato sauce pizza with no cheese, and only shaved garlic and basil, to the "Marilyn," a $17 white cheese pizza with mozzarella, thin-sliced shitake and oyster mushrooms, roast onions and grana padano.
There is also a house and Caesar salad, if one feels the need.
Dola is a fresh arrangement of wood, marble and tile. It can seat 12, and will begin selling beer and wine in a few weeks. Takeout is available.
"I like tradition," Downing said. "I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel. This is proven — a classic. It's simplicity. But it's not as easy as people think. We really care about what we're doing."
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871
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