Each of the trio of brick ovens in the cavernous open kitchen at DeSano's Pizza Bakery is dedicated to a different patron saint of Naples, but they all cook the same way: fast. The searing flames in the oak-fired ovens do their work in about one minute. Add that to the time it takes to twirl an airborne lump of dough into a supple circle and slather it with sweet San Marzano tomatoes, fresh buffalo mozzarella and toppings such as grilled artichokes and caramelized onions, and you've got a fast-paced meal with more of a slow-food spirit.
There's a lot of history behind the Neapolitan-style pizza restaurant, which opened last month near the Music Row Roundabout. The journey back in time starts four years ago, with the debut of the wildly popular sister restaurant in Atlanta, Antico Pizza, founded by Giovanni Di Palma. Before that, you've got to hark back a few more years, to Italy, where Di Palma's grandfather Felice — a baker and pizzaiolo — lived prior to immigrating to America in 1914. Grandfather Felice was named for the patron saint of his hometown outside Naples, as was the local flour mill. These days, the pizza oven on the far right of DeSano's kitchen bears Saint Felice's name, and the dough is made with San Felice flour named for the historic mill.
But the restaurant carries the name of Scott DeSano, who bought out Antico's founder and is now expanding the concept under his own brand. After Nashville, he's opening in Charleston, S.C., and Los Angeles.
Along with ovens named for saints Paolino and Gennaro, DeSano's forno San Felice churns out a tight roster of char-pocked pizzas and calzones. Certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, the repertoire is drawing favorable comparisons to New York pies from even the most dogmatic snobs — er, connoisseurs.
To be sure, the streamlined Neapolitan formula — fine-ground "00" flour, Mediterranean sea salt, water and yeast — yields a superior crust with a delicate texture that is simultaneously stretchy and crisp. It's a crust so enticing you'll want to eat the untopped handles that so often get left behind.
If you think that sounds inconsequential, consider this basic geometry: The area of a pizza can be measured by multiplying pi times the square of the radius. In a 16-inch DeSano pie, that makes the equation 3.14 times 64, or approximately 201 square inches of pizza. If you allow for an inch of untopped circumference — the infamous pizza bones — that leaves you with about 154 square inches of viable 'za at the core. In other words, you're surrendering 23 percent of your meal.
What does that mean in terms of dough — er, dollars? On a $20 pizza, you're leaving almost five bucks on the table if you walk away from the outer inch of crust.
Before the mathletes barge in with all their pesky Pythagorean accuracy and the fact that my calculations only take into account surface area, not the meaty mass of sausage and beef or cheese and vegetables, let me say this: Shut your piehole, nerds. You are as square as a radius. No one's going to be leaving any pizza circumference on the table at DeSano, anyway.
On our two visits, we left nary a crust or crumb. Not a creamy curd of ricotta or buffalo mozzarella, a tangy-sweet circle of peppadew, or a floret of broccoli rabe. Our large group of small kids emptied the oversize baking sheets almost as soon as they arrived on the long communal tables. Soon they asked for more pizza. Then they asked what my review was going to say.
The answer required its own math. Here's what I said: DeSano is an excellent family restaurant for small kids with limited appetites. (Not limited palates.) There are big tables for spreading out and spectacular pizza-twirling on display for passing the time until your food arrives. There are cups on the table and a self-service sink, making beverages for a bunch of kids economical and convenient. We'll come back here often, I said ... until you kids hit a growth spurt. After that, it will cost too much to feed you here. The thinness of the crust, coupled with your robo-metabolisms means you will need about a pizza a piece, and that's about $20 bucks a head, before tacking on a clamshell of spinach salad, biscotti, sfogliatelle or gelato. Sorry, kids.
But for grown-ups who value clean, fresh ingredients and prioritize quality over volume, DeSano's is a breath of fresh air. The cheery, casual atmosphere, with long tables and an easygoing BYOB policy, makes a good spot to grab a bite on the way to a game or show downtown — as long as the bite you're looking for is pizza or calzone. Beyond those delicacies, there are two pre-made salads that combine pizza toppings such as San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella and raw mushrooms over baby spinach. There's also a generous toppings bar, with olive oil, garlic and fresh grated Parmesan.
If you're not interested in BYOB, they serve a small selection of beer and wine (including Sofia bubbly in mini cans), plus Mexican cokes and a few other soft drinks in bottles.
For dessert, there's a tempting display case of cannoli, whose shells are shipped in and filled to order with sweet, creamy ricotta. The welcome result of the à la minute preparation is a crisp tube with soft filling — not the other way around.
Speaking of fresh air, one of the most memorable moments of our visits came when we exited the building at night. Standing on the renovated site of the former Castle music venue, we suddenly had a new, unexpected view of the city. The skyline rose in the distance like a splendid panorama from a recent Nashville episode. Meanwhile, the moon hit the eye like a certified Neapolitan crust.
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