I need to confess something: I am fanatical about Neapolitan pizza. My quest for the perfect pie has taken me from Italy's boot top to its toe, including six trips to Naples, the fountainhead of pizza. I learned how to make it from a Neapolitan woman in her tiny seaside apartment using broken Italian and pantomime. I even spent three months working at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, which is housed in the former palace of Queen Margherita of Savoy, for whom the Margherita pizza was allegedly invented and named. Needless to say, unless a place serves me pizza with a view of Mount Vesuvius, it has a serious handicap.
With such impossibly high expectations, I ventured to the Good Pie, owner Mike Randolph's Neapolitan-style pizzeria. Randolph originally operated the Good Pie in midtown for five years before closing its doors last August to relocate. Now in the new Delmar Loop digs, he again stokes the wood-burning fire, giving St. Louisans a taste of pizza beyond the square.
The dining room has a sleek design, with exposed ductwork and modern wooden accents adorning the shotgun-style layout. A contemporary portrait of Queen Margherita herself watches over the dining room. A bar stocked with just about every concoction under the sun lines the length of the narrow room, tended by mixologist Jeffrey Moll (formerly of the now-defunct Little Country Gentleman). If there is anything to knock about this lovely space, it's that it is exceedingly noisy. On both a busy night and a slow afternoon, the music was cranked up so loudly that I had to shout at my dinner guests. Coupled with the reverberating acoustics of the space, it is maddening.
The menu is about as spare and simple as Neapolitan pizza itself, and this impossible-to-impress "pie-hard" had to go straight for the classic Margherita D.O.P. pizza. The crust is typical of the genre — thin in the center with a raised, tender edge speckled with characteristic char blisters. Though the black marks are a necessity of the style, some of our pies may have stayed in the wood-burning oven too long — twice we received crusts covered with golf-ball-sized eruptions that made the whole thing bitter. The sauce — traditionally nothing more than crushed San Marzano tomatoes, salt and olive oil — was beautiful in its sweet-tart simplicity. However, I had mixed emotions about the cheese. Randolph's source is Colombia-based Annabella Buffalo Cheeses, which makes its mozzarella from free-roaming, grass-fed buffalo. However, I found myself questioning whether it was actually buffalo mozzarella. Unlike the wetter buffalo mozzarella that nearly liquefies when heated, this was rather firm. It had a nice, mild earthy flavor, but I could have used a little more ooze.
In conclusion, it was, indeed, a good pie. Not a great pie, but a worthy effort.
Here is the more surprising thing: The tastiest item on the Good Pie menu is not its pizza, but its pasta (offered on a rotating basis). Its gnocchi were tiny pillows with just enough caramelization on them to provide structure while remaining light and delicate inside. I barely needed to chew them. Tossed with chunks of funky blue cheese, candied pecans, pickled cranberries and brown butter, the dish was an expert balance of sweet, salty, rich and tart. This may be the best thing I have eaten so far this year.
The Good Pie has a very small appetizer menu. We tried the polenta, covered with ground lamb and tomato, an interesting twist on Bolognese sauce. The white bean dip, served with slices of fresh, wood-fired bread, was tasty, although I was expecting more depth of flavor from the bagna cauda (a dip of garlic, olive oil and anchovies indigenous to Piedmont). I was barely able to discern the anchovy flavor, and the garlic was very subtle.
On one of my visits, the Good Pie offered an off-the-menu pie topped with shaved Brussels sprouts, fresh mozzarella, sage and house-cured pancetta that was so creamy it melted in my mouth. Another pizza, the prosciutto and arugula, is generously dotted with fresh mozzarella, sprinkled with olive oil then blanketed with the thin Italian ham. Though a purist, I preferred this one to the Good Pie's Margherita.
Randolph's pizzeria is very true to the Neapolitan style — it may not be Naples, but it's where I'll go when I'm longing for the next closest thing.