There’s no denying Italians love their Neapolitan pizza. Just how important is the dish to those who call the Boot home? So crucial that the country is considering pushing for official UNESCO protection of the classic pie on the United Nations body’s “intangible cultural heritage” list.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of travelling to Napoli to sample the real thing, you’re in luck. Gastown’s recently opened Nicli Antica Pizzeria serves up pizza so authentic you’ll swear you’re sitting in a bustling piazza and not in a stylish little restaurant with an exposed brick wall and stainless-steel accents on East Cordova Street.
Several factors combine to make Nicli’s pizza genuine and genuinely fine. Owner Bill McCaig (whose Italian grandfather’s last name was Nicli) sticks to the KISS credo: keep it simple, stupid. And to judge by what I tried on a recent visit, in the hands of Nicli’s team, simplicity is sublime.
You won’t find options like pineapple or barbecued chicken as toppings, and there are certainly no goo-stuffed crusts or canned black olives here. (Seriously, whoever uses those terrible, bland Cheerio-shaped things should be sworn at by Gordon Ramsay.) Instead, Nicli offers straightforward combinations on a total of 10 one-size-only pies. Uncomplicated and unpretentious, the flavours sing for themselves.
McCaig uses only the best ingredients: Italian “00” Caputo flour (for which cheaper, all-purpose stuff is no substitute); whole San Marzano tomatoes; velvety, barrel-aged 12-year-old Reggio Emilia San Giacomo balsamic vinegar; estate-grown, cold-pressed, extra-virgin Coratina olive oil; and so on. And finally, he cooks the pizzas as they were meant to be cooked: for about 90 seconds in a low-domed, wood-fired oven that reaches 900 ° Fahrenheit. The oven—a piece of art in its own right, encased in a tall, thick, white-tiled column underneath the white ceiling’s high arch—is an Acunto. Straight from Naples, it’s built by craftsmen using local clay, for the sole purpose of cooking pizza.
McCaig, who hails from St. Thomas, Ontario, and worked in his family’s waste-disposal company for a decade before going to the Cordon Bleu Ottawa Culinary Arts Institute, travelled to Naples to learn pizza-making from the pros. He’s so serious about providing the real deal that he’s hoping to get his pizza certified Specialití Tradizionale Garantita, or “traditional specialty guaranteed”, this summer. The European Union label requires that a product meet certain standards (such as the use of the aforementioned prime ingredients) and be approved by a special committee.
The Prosciutto e Rucola ($19) is as pretty as it is savoury. Heaps of peppery arugula contrast nicely with the paper-thin meat’s saltiness. The portion of aromatic greens is so generous you’d be forgiven for thinking your waiter brought you a salad by mistake. The toppings appear bountiful across the board; one glance at the Margherita ($12) is met with big, bright basil leaves, not the shrivelled-up versions you might see at other Italian restaurants.
The big, juicy black olives on the Capricciosa ($20) are lusciously lemony and, together with the artichokes, mushrooms, basil, and prosciutto cotto, make for an indulgent dish.
The Misto Antipasti is a lovely start. At $15 for one person, the platter is easily enough to share, especially if you split, say, an Insalata Mista ($7) as well, with its whole head of roasted garlic. Served with mmm-inducing flatbread, which is topped with tiny, fresh thyme leaves, the antipasti include a plump, honeyed, preserved fig; simultaneously sweet and spicy orange and red peppers; oven-roasted tomatoes; Taleggio and Cappuccetto Rosso cheeses (the former is mellow and Brie-like, while the latter is stronger); lively green Castelvetrano olives marinated in a shallot-herb dressing; and mortadella, Bresaola (an air-dried, cured beef), and Genoa salami.
Nicli doesn’t take reservations, and by 6 o’clock on a recent Friday the place was packed. But it’s no hardship waiting for a table as you stand at the bar, cocktail in hand, checking out the pies going by (if not the diverse crowd: everyone from families with small kids to hipsters). Our date-night tab, including two glasses of wine each, came to about $100 before tax and tip. You won’t find a more bang-on take on pizza unless you go to Naples yourself.