When Burlington’s 156 Bistro closed in December, the notices in the window suggested it might be just for renovations. Turns out that was only part of the story. The inside of the St. Paul Street space has become a tangle of construction, and two new partners are busy fitting it out as a whole different eatery, anchored by a two-ton, wood-fired oven in which they’ll cook authentic Neapolitan pizza.
Owners John Rao and Leslie Wells expect their business, Pizzeria Verita, to be open by April. Their motto: “The truth is in the dough.”
Rao says he has spent years perfecting the crust for a true-to-tradition Neapolitan pizza, a distinct and revered style defined by a thin, airy, sometimes-charred crust and simple, fresh toppings. “It took me a while to figure it out,” says Rao of the crust, which he eventually mastered with Antico Molino Caputo Tipo 00 pizza flour from Italy and a “slow rise” of 24 to 36 hours.
Inside a 900-degree oven, the pies cook in 90 seconds and emerge blistered. Then they’re topped with über-fresh ingredients — San Marzano tomatoes, fresh or bufala mozzarella, fresh herbs, prosciutto, arugula, broccoli rabe, fennel sausage, or other local meats and cheeses. At one of Rao’s private tastings, he says, a burrata-topped pie prompted an acquaintance to invest in the new business on the spot. “People would tell me, ‘There’s nothing like this crust,’” says Rao, brimming with energy.
Wells has studied Neapolitan pizza at Kesté Pizza & Vino in New York City, an American center of the tradition. “You keep it simple, and all of the flavors pop,” she says.
The Verita menu will also feature salads created by Chez Panisse-trained Amy Bacon, and the owners have “exciting things” planned for the bar. They won’t disclose the details just yet, saying only, “It will be a first for Vermont.”
Rao and Wells met more than two decades ago when both worked at the Sirloin Saloon — he as a chef, she as a manager. Rao eventually went into real estate, while Wells owned the Purple Knights Pizza, later PK Café, in Colchester, which closed last year. In a reprise of their original roles, Rao will helm the kitchen — at least at first — and Wells will manage the front of the house, along with the former owner of the beloved Chicken Bone Café, David Abdoo, who will serve as general manager.
To lighten up the ambiance, the partners have busted through the north wall to create a bank of arched windows and built long wooden benches along some of the walls. They plan to scatter some farm tables among the traditional two- and four-tops. “We want to bring authenticity to this fun, hip environment,” Wells says.
Both Rao and Wells think the eatery will blend well with neighboring restaurants, including American Flatbread — Burlington Hearth, just down the street. “It’s a whole different product. It will be a good complement,” says Rao.
For now, they’re awaiting the arrival of their massive Gianni Acunto oven. With the help of the Italian tomatoes and flour, “We’re trying to fool the dough into thinking it’s in Naples,” Rao quips.
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