'Round the World 

Pizza joint is authentic, but not necessarily worth the drive

Pizza joint is authentic, but not necessarily worth the drive

Sicily Pizza

3610 Anderson Rd. 365-0009.

Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon-Thurs.; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 4-9 p.m. Sun.

As passionate as Southerners are about their barbecue, I would imagine Italians are the same way about their pizza. After all, they invented the dish. Considered a peasant’s meal for centuries, pizza as we know it today is attributed to baker Rafaele Esposito of Naples in the Campania region. The first true pizzeria, Antica Pizzeria Port’ Alba, was opened in 1830 in Naples.

Experts believe that the world’s most authentic pizza is Pizza Napoletana, which maintains its preeminence through the quality of the locally produced ingredients (herbs, garlic, fresh mozzarella, tomatoes grown in the volcanic ash of Vesuvius) and the artistry of the pizzaioli, the pizza makers. The Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana sets down the rules for ingredients, dough, and cooking by which its member pizzerias must abide. Dough is made only with flour, natural yeast or brewer’s yeast, salt, and water; it must be kneaded by hand or by mixers that don’t cause the dough to overheat, and it must be punched down and shaped by hand. The oven must be a wood-burning oven structured in a bell shape, made of special brick with the floor constructed of volcanic stone. The cooking of the pizza must take place on the surface of the oven and not in any pan or container, with oven temperatures reaching at least 750-800 degrees.

Pizza came to America with the Italians in the latter half of the 19th century. By the turn of the century, Italians had begun to open their own bakeries in which they also sold pizza. Gennaro Lombardi opened the first true U.S. pizzeria in 1905 on Spring Street in New York City, the neighborhood known as Little Italy. But it wasn’t until after World War II, when returning GIs created a nationwide demand for the pizza they had eaten in Italy, that the dish truly went mainstream. In the late 1950s, Pizza Hut, Shakey’s, and various other mass-production pizza parlors appeared, and in the year 2000, it’s safe to bet that there’s hardly a home in America not within delivery distance of Domino’s or another national chain. It’s also safe to bet that Rafaele Esposito and the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana would be appalled at these eateries’ cooking methods, as well as at the many alleged “improvements” made to the simple peasant dish: stuffed crust pizza, loaded pizza, and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink pizza.

In Italy and much of Europe, pizza is a far different dish than what one finds in America, thanks in part to the rules set down by the Associazione. In Italy, the crust is thin and crispy, topped with a light layer of tomato and herbs, with a few variations. In America, more is more; massive pizza chains and independent mom-and-pop stores compete to see who can come up with the most outrageous pizza invention.

There is no shortage of quantity when it comes to pizza makers, though quality is a matter of taste. When the Scene first began its annual “Best of Nashville” competition, there was just one category for Best Pizza. Many were astounded to witness such chains as Domino’s and Pizza Hut winning the contest. In response, the paper divided the pizza entry into two categories: chain and non-chain, giving Nashville’s independent pizza makers a chance to compete and their fans an opportunity to recognize their favorites.

In this year’s poll, in the chain category, the results, in descending order, were Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, and Domino’s. In the non-chain category, the leading vote-getters were DaVinci’s, Pizza Perfect, and Obie’s. But the results are not without their critics, who offer howls of protest when their favorite joints go unrecognized. Such protests often call for further investigation. For instance, I recently received an e-mail from the fan of a pizza maker located off Murfreesboro Road, near Percy Priest Lake.

“My grandfather is from Malta, my grandmother from Butera, Sicily; my mother was born in Palermo, Sicily,” the reader wrote. “I lived in Boston with my grandmother until I was 10; I have been in the record business 25 years and have eaten in a few Italian places. I have no beef, but there is a place on Anderson Road by the lake called Sicily Pizza owned by a born Sicilian. Their food is better than any in Nashville. I mean that! [The] pizza is as good as any in New York or any other place, all homemade each day. You list all these gummy crust joints as great, who take their sauce from a can and put oregano in it.... You should check out the real thing so you have a comparison.... I know everything is about money and [that] support of the chains is profitable, but if you continue to ignore places like Sicily, they will go away and we will go back to the diet of the South.”

Far be it from me to ignore testimony like that, which is why I found myself last Friday driving east on I-40, getting off at Stewarts Ferry Pike, turning right onto Bell Road, driving about 2 miles, turning left on Smith Springs Road, then left again at Anderson and into a small strip center, which is where Sicily Pizza is located. About an hour later, I was carrying pizzas, calzones, sub sandwiches, pasta, and cannolis into the Scene lunchroom, kicking off a staff stampede—free food!!!—and some heated discussion weighing the merits of Sicily Pizza against other staff favorites, particularly Manny’s House of Pizza in the downtown Arcade; his brother’s CoolSprings outpost, Joey’s House of Pizza; and Pizza Perfect.

Here’s the condensed wrap-up: It’s impossible to judge by consumption alone, as journalists are known to ingest just about any kind of food as long as it is A) within reach and B) free, and that was pretty much the case with Sicily Pizza. Within 45 minutes, the only things that remained on the lunchroom tables were a loaf of garlic bread, a few bites of pasta primavera, and the discarded outer crusts of the pizza.

The undisputed winners were the cheese and the spinach calzones, their misshapen forms and generous portions of filling sure signs of their homemade credentials; both came with a side of marinara sauce, which also got superior grades.

The pizza fared well too, with its chewy crust, hearty sauce, and a modest hand with the cheese. Particularly good was Sicily’s version of the vegetarian, loaded with spinach, mushrooms, feta cheese, and sun-dried tomatoes. The subs were another winner, due in large part to the good bread and excellent oil-vinegar-herb dressing.

Not faring as well were the pastas; the spaghetti and meatballs were fine, but is there anything easier or cheaper to make at home? At Sicily, a plate will set you back $5.95, $2.85 for a kiddie serving. The ground beef in the baked ziti was unexpected, and not pleasantly so, making the dish greasier than it should be. Dessert was much better: The homemade filling in the cannoli was very good, creamy and without the cloying sweetness that mars many.

Is it worth the 25-minute drive from Nashville to Sicily Pizza? Frankly, no—not if I can be at Manny’s, Joey’s, or Pizza Perfect in less than 10. But for those who live in Hermitage or along the outer reaches of Murfreesboro Road, Sicily Pizza should be No. 1 in the non-chain category.

Open for business

Dining options available to Nashvillians expand this week with the opening of three new restaurants, two of which may be familiar to travelers. P.F. Chang’s is probably the most eagerly anticipated of the three; when the China Bistro, as it is touted, opened its doors at 11 a.m. on Labor Day, there were three different parties waiting at the door to be seated. No doubt, at least one of them started with Chang’s most popular appetizers, Chang’s Chicken in Soothing Lettuce Wrap or the Salt & Pepper Calamari.

Chang’s was founded in 1993 in Scottsdale, Ariz., by national restaurateur Paul Fleming (no relation to Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse, see below), who wanted to combine a bustling bistro setting with fine Chinese food and an extensive wine list, with more than 50 available by the glass or bottle. There are currently more than 40 P.F. Chang’s restaurants in 19 states; Nashville’s store (329-8901), located in the 2525 West End building that also houses Borders bookstore, will help boost the total to 50 by the end of the year. This location, open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, seats 180 inside, 18 at the bar, and 20 on the patio. Takeout will be available soon.

If big, juicy steaks suit your fancy more than orange-peel beef, steer yourself into Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar (342-0131), opening Sept. 12, also in the 2525 building. Fleming’s, whose claim to chain fame is prime beef seared at extremely high temperatures on gas broilers, along with more than 100 domestic and imported wines by the glass, was founded in 1998 in Newport Beach, Calif. The restaurant also serves fresh seafood and salads, and fresh vegetables family-style, with seven different potato selections. The 7,000-sq.-ft. restaurant will seat almost 250 for dinner seven days a week.

In the non-chain category, Virago opens this week in the former Slice of Life/Peaceful Planet location on Division Street. Owner Chris Hyndman likes it raw, with sushi, ceviche, and steak tartare on the menu, along with Latin American, French, and Asian-influenced cuisine prepared by chef Anthony Bates. Virago (320-5149) will be open for dinner Mon.-Sat.

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