“I know you. I know you! How do I know you?”
This is what John Rao said as he intercepted me during two of my three visits to Pizzeria Verità, forgetting who I was from one visit to the next, or that I had interviewed him back while he was still planning Burlington’s newest pizzeria.
The lanky Rao is an exuberant, ubiquitous and endearing presence inside the Burlington restaurant, where he bounces from table to table, checking in on guests. Verità is clearly Rao’s baby, and he has put much of himself into it — from the years he spent perfecting the crust for wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas to casting near and far for his oven, his flour, his San Marzano tomatoes, his salad greens, his management and staff.
To understand why someone would exit a real estate career to devote himself to pizza, know that the Neapolitan style has an almost cultlike following: Fewer than 100 pizzerias nationwide turn out these thin-crusted, misshapen, blistered pies, which are made according to strict rules.
What appears to be a simple creation — a wood-fired pizza decked out with fresh, basic toppings — actually relies on subtlety and exactitude to make it work, from the right type of flour, a long dough rise, the perfect oven temperature, and very fresh cheeses, meats and produce. For Rao, perhaps, it was a siren’s call.
This May, he and co-owner Leslie Wells opened Pizzeria Verità in the St. Paul Street space that has housed a string of ultimately defunct eateries: 156 Bistro, Menores Mexican Cantina, the Waiting Room and Plan B among them. Wells — who used to run PK Café in Colchester — traveled to New York to study the Neapolitan style at Keste Pizza and Vino, she then shared with Verita’s pizzaioli, or pizza makers. Then she and Rao tapped JDK Design to create the interior and landed veteran restaurateur David Abdoo to manage the bar. Wells and Rao resolved to make their own mozzarella — which they call Fior de Latte — and source fresh, local meats, greens and cheeses the Neapolitan way.
And, sporting serious cojones, Rao and Wells opened within two blocks of American Flatbread — Burlington Hearth, which has long set the bar for artisan pizza in town, possibly in the state.
Is all this enough to drag the venue out of the restaurant Bermuda Triangle? One hopes so: It is damned good pizza that deserves to become a permanent fixture.
Walking into Verità is like entering a sleek, industrial-chic temple to pizza: stacks of firewood; soaring wall of neatly stacked wine bottles; huge, mosaic-covered oven in which you can glimpse a fire.
Inside that oven is a 900-degree inferno that singes and blisters Verità’s pies within two minutes. They arrive at the table with a constellation of air bubbles, burn marks and char so ample, it might leave your fingers blackened as you eat.
In the beginning, those charred flavors were overwhelming; each pie tasted a touch burnt. While the pizza was decent, its elements seemed flat — the bright San Marzano sauce lacked finesse, the dough and cheese needed salt.
All of those issues had been resolved a few weeks later. The char marks were smoky bottom notes on a crust with satisfying pull and flavor, a hint of powdery flour clinging to its sides. The crust, though thin, stayed crisp whether baked beneath sauce, prosciutto, broccoli rabe or burrata.
Verità offers 13 pies, from standard-bearers such as the marinara to pizzas topped with aged cheeses, soppressata, caramelized onions, even smoked salmon and dill. There are three gluten-free pies to choose from, which the server offers to have cooked separately from those containing gluten. Specials might include a burrata-topped pizza, and even one topped with dried cherries.
The Fior di Latte is a creamy, saline blessing wherever it appears, from the earthy Margherita pie ($11) dotted with singed pieces of basil, to the lighter, chewy bianca ($15), a white pizza piled high with fresh arugula and curls of paper-thin prosciutto.
The crust takes more of a backseat in the flavorful salsiccia e rapini pie ($15), with crumbles of peppery, housemade fennel sausage, a sloppy tangle of broccoli rabe and aged bits of Grana Padano cheese. The flavors come together for a bitter, sweet, salty, astringent and truly finger-licking-good pizza.
Also sublime is a pizza topped with a snow-white sea of burrata ($16) and dotted with sweet, quick-roasted cherry tomatoes. Eating it is like moving your tongue through a savory cloud.
The gluten-free crust, made with rice and soy flour, is a study in contrasts: While it has a nuttier, fuller flavor than the standard Verità crust, it doesn’t achieve the crispness of its glutinous cousin.
The salads are worth their own sea of ink. I love a simple, fresh green salad, yet at many restaurants it seems to be an afterthought. At Verità, each green in a mista salad ($5) is buoyant and barely kissed by sweet vinaigrette. I couldn’t resist having the rocket salad ($8) twice: The greens are spicy and peppery, the vinaigrette is light and almost citrusy, and the pine nuts and slivers of Grana Padano offer up texture and saltiness. A plate of perfectly crisp-tender asparagus spears is bedecked with a heavenly olive tapenade and dressed up with an almost-hard-boiled egg and nest of microgreens ($9).
The kitchen also offers build-your-own plates of antipasto (one item for $3.50, three items for $10, five for $16). On one visit, we inhaled a board of tangy, soft artichoke hearts marinated in salty brine; wedges of Fior di Latte; and a handful of an addictive smoked prosciutto called speck. (Other offerings include olives, rapini, salami, baked goat cheese, and soppresatta.) Though tasty, the portions were small for the price.
The dessert choices might seem limited to some, but less is better, because you really just need the pizza alla Nutella. Think of a chocolate croissant on steroids: chewy dough folded over melted Nutella, drizzled with more melted Nutella and then sprinkled with confectioners sugar.
Verità serves up Bindi sorbetto, and each intense flavor is served in its own shell. That is, the puckery lemon sorbet comes inside a bisected lemon peel, and the rich, creamy coconut sorbet — shot through with chewy flecks of coconut — is pressed into a round coconut shell.
In contrast to the simplicity of the menu, the bar serves up some imaginative and unusual cocktails, such as the San Paolo ($9), a quenching, almost savory blend of white tequila, Campari, strawberries, lime juice, seltzer and balsamic vinegar. Some excellent craft beers flow here, too — Fiddlehead and Magic Hat Humdinger are on tap. Though the wine list is compact, it’s interesting, though I’m puzzled as to why three of the six reds are Barberas. However, the wine on tap — a pair of Charles Bielers that are among the first tapped wines in Vermont — didn’t do it for me.
Even though Rao recognized me at the end of two meals, it really didn’t matter. The same oven serves critics and punters alike, and serves them very well.
Pizzeria Verità, 156 St. Paul St., Burlington, 489-5644. www.pizzeriaverita.com