Volume 74, Number 31 | December 08 - 14, 2004


Food

L’Asso
192 Mott St (cor. of Kenmare St.)
(212) 219-2353
appetizers $7-12, individual pizzas $8-16, entrees under $20;
cash only; small, regional Italian wine list: $20-90 per bottle
12 wines by the glass $6-8.

Salvatore Olivella at L’Asso’s brick oven where he makes his thin-crusted Neapolitan pizzas

Homemade pizza with a Neapolitan flare

By Frank Angelino

It took five days to cure the rustic pizza oven at the newly-opened L’Asso in Little Italy. On each of those days, executive chef Salvatore Olivella, patiently rubbed the interior stone of the pizza oven with olive oil until it darkened to a burnt umber color. Only then, was the large, curved stone oven ready.

“The oven was made for my misura, my size,” Olivella says. It’s large round shape is able to accommodate two doors; one to slide the uncooked pizzas in, and the other, to extract them when they reach the crispy perfection Olivella seeks.

L’Asso, is owned by Robert Benevenga, who helped design the contemporary space with large windows, exposed brick walls, and a striking green, geometric wood tile ceiling.

The chef learned to make pizza at his family’s pizzeria “Finestrella di Mare Chiare” in Naples, which is at the natal epicenter of thin-crusted stone oven pizzas.

“I made my first pizza when I was eleven,” he said indicating that he was considered mature enough in a place where pizza making is taken very seriously. He made his initial mark in the New York pizza world last year at Union Square’s “Pie by the Pound,” where elongated pizzas with a variety of innovative toppings were sold by whatever width the customer preferred.

At L’Asso, Olivella is making traditional Neapolitan pizza with over eighteen imaginative toppings. The menu has a number of cooked dishes, styled in the chef’s brand of modern Cucina di Campagnia, from the region of Naples. Dishes include a half-dozen well-crafted pastas, antipasti, panini, huge bowls of fresh and imaginative salads, and entrees like veal pizzaiola (fittingly in the style of the pizza maker), stuffed calamari with bread and asparagus. Some of the dishes are baked in the pizza oven.

Olivella has the heritage and training that results in excellent pizza. The flour is imported from Naples. Along with Naples, Olivella says that, “New York has the best water for pizza dough.” He makes the dough every day, “In warm weather, it takes about 30 minutes to rise; when it’s cold it takes one to two hours.”

“We use only oak and cherry wood for the oven,” Olivella notes. The oven temperature reaches, “Up to 850 degrees.” The pizza is prepared in front of the oven at the window overlooking the street. While that may seem like a perfect stage for an ebullient pizza maker like Olivella, he doesn’t go in for theatrics like pizza tossing in the air. In fact, his movements are measured and economical. He takes out a five ounce oval of the risen dough, quickly pats it out to enlarge it and then spins it back and forth between his fists until it reaches the desired twelve inch size (Olivella also makes an 18” and a 29” long pizza, which he says is in the Roman style).

For the classic pizza, “Margherita” (mozzarella, tomato sauce and basil), Olivella places a few pieces of high-quality mozzarella on the pizza, carefully adds a half dozen or so dollops of good tomato sauce in the spaces between the mozzarella, and finishes the pie with a few leaves of fresh basil in the center and a spurt of fruity olive oil all around. (Fresh, imported buffalo mozzarella is substituted for regular mozzarella in the Bufalina D. O. C. pizza).

The pie is slid into the oven with a deft jolt of the hand, and after a few minutes exposure to the intense heat is extracted from the other oven door. Because of the method of preparation, the pizza has a hand crafted look. The rim is slightly puffy and irregular, the crust is nicely charred and entirely edible, each bite yields the melded flavors of the individual ingredients; all together a superior pie.

L’Asso most popular pie, Olivella says is the pizza San Daniele, which is topped with flavorful prosciutto San Daniele, mozzarella and arugula. The pizza Rosso, with tomato sauce, basil, oregano, capers and olive oil is an especially good treat because Olivella makes an excellent tomato sauce.

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