Pizzeria Avanti's Jeremy Federico (Photo by Chip Scheuer)
It’s practically an embarrassment of riches, this delicious wave of artisanal pizza that has swept over our community. Yet the craze for this ancient culinary design of flatbread topped with variations on the theme of tomato, cheese, peppers, meat and herbs just keeps growing. And no one in Santa Cruz is complaining.
Once there was only Engfer, but now Seabright’s “pizza triangle” boasts the crusty dazzle of La Posta and the pesto-intensive menu of Tramonti.html. Meanwhile on the Westside, newcomers Pizzeria Avanti and Bantam have won their own followings of Neopolitan-style fanatics.
If this all seems like too much pizza, consider that nothing is simpler to consume. All one needs is a hand, and a mouth. The thin, bubbly-crisp dough “pie” can be topped with almost anything the consumer desires. And pizza is not, well, as expensive to produce as a grass-fed Angus steak. Hence, this is the very moment for a designer pizza surplus.
Fueled by one of those Mugnaini gas-fired ovens, Tramonti offers Italian-style downhome trattoria atmosphere with lots of long tables and an exhibition kitchen. Pizza crust at the neighborhood newcomer is volcanic and delicious and is the handiwork of pizza chef Beppe Vitagliano. Fresh, simple and as authentically Italian as its owners, Tramonti unashamedly showcases its giant pies, as well as giant pastas and salads, on Mondays as well as at lunchtime.
Meanwhile, across the parking lot at La Posta, the kitchen of Katherine Stern offers a menu of contemporary Italian dishes in an invitingly sophisticated setting. And while pizza is only one of the house specialties, it is destination-quality, with its handmade doughs and inventive toppings. Patrice Boyle, owner of La Posta restaurant, told us that for environmental reasons she chose a Wood Stone oven-brick, gas fired pizza oven for La Posta. The choice was made to help maintain air quality in the immediate neighborhood, “since there was a wood oven across the street,” Boyle explained. The results are addictive, as fans of the popular Tuesday night “$15 pizza plus a glass of wine” special can attest. La Posta’s pizzette-sized creations offer crisp, chewy crusts and well-balanced additions from wild nettles to classic four-cheese voluptuousness.
And across the street from both Tramonti and La Posta sits the longstanding landmark Engfer Pizzaworks, the welcoming, cavernous lovechild of Elizabeth Engfer and Katherine McCamant. “Our oven is completely wood-fired,” McCamant explains, “and made in Italy.” Inlaid with local-hand-painted tiles, the huge oven was installed in 1989 “through the front plate glass window.” Engfer’s crowd-pleasing pizzas, including vegan and gluten-free options, are made to order—and “made with love,” adds McCamant. Engfer’s pizza style, McCamant continues, “is not East Coast, although the majority of East Coast customers are pleasantly surprised and impressed when they taste our pizza. We’re also not Neopolitan. Not Chicago, not Sicilian, and not particularly Californian. Our crust is thin, but not cracker thin. Can be crisp, can be chewy. It’s not bland and it’s a great vehicle for any topping combination.”
Recently on the Westside, two establishments—one sparkling new, the other a cozy revival of an old favorite—are busy whipping up handmade pizzas for the discerning pizzaphile. Bantam—very Milanese industrial, with a colorfully-tiled almond-wood-fired Mugnaini oven as its crown jewel—is the newest kid on the block. As we know, the whole secret to great pizza crust is the ability to get that pie into a very hot oven (1000 degrees). No, you can’t do that at home. But Bantam can. Bantam’s flavorful and rippling crusts are fueled by unbleached organic flour and simple, straightforward toppings devised by chef Melissa Reitz for the vibrant new pizza parlor owned by Ben and Sarah Sims.
On Mission Street, the old Ristorante Avanti has transformed itself into Pizzeria Avanti by the presence of a gas-fired Marsal & Sons pizza oven, the secret weapon in a very successful seduction of loyal regulars. Many are already enamored of the textbook Neopolitan-style pizzas, small and large, made by Jeremy Federico’s able kitchen staff. Inventive salads offer the seasonal, gourmet counterpoint to the straight-forward pizzas. And the selection of $8 wines by the glass makes dinners at Pizzeria Avanti an affordable, and hence frequent, pit stop for Westside neighbors.
With such an abundance of handmade pizza possibilities, it’s a good thing to live in Santa Cruz. —Christina Waters