This past summer, I decided to take a drive over to General Hoock's on Buffalo Road, a pizzeria I hadn't been to for a while, just for an update. I was disappointed to see that it was closed, but my disappointment was partially mitigated by the sign in the window advertising a wood-fired pizzeria opening in that space soon.
I've been to enough wood-fired pizzerias by now to know that the presence of a wood-burning oven is no guarantee of great pizza, so while I was interested, I wasn't overly excited about the news.
A couple of weeks ago, I drove by again, and noticed that the restaurant had opened, under the name Fiamma. I arranged to meet some friends there for lunch.
The pizza portion of the menu was broken down into two categories: Le Pizze Tradizionali, and Le Pizze Specialita, each of which had a Margherita on it. On the traditional side was a $12 Margherita with tomato sauce, mozzarella, fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil, and Gran Cru cheese. The specialty Margherita, at $16, came with San Marzano tomato sauce, imported buffalo milk mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, oregano, basil, Gran Cru cheese, and extra virgin olive oil.
As I understood the menu, all of Fiamma's pizzas are made with San Marzano tomatoes, and though I was tempted to spring for the specialty version, I ended up going for the regular, "traditional" Margherita. Both my friends ordered a Diavola, which comes with tomato sauce, mozzarella, soppressata, basil, and spicy olive oil, also at $12.
Truth be told, I was a little taken aback by the prices. I know you can pay $5 for a single slice in New York City, but Fiamma's prices seemed a tad high for this area, especially for a pizzeria in a small strip plaza on a relatively nondescript stretch of Buffalo Road in Gates. Still, I tried to keep an open mind, and hope for the best.
Or at least I thought I was hoping for the best. What I got was better than what I had hoped for, and by the time I was done, the prices seemed eminently reasonable.
On arrival, the pie looked like a pretty good, if typical, wood-fired Margherita. But the closer I looked, the more intrigued I became.
First, there was the charring. I've had wood-fired pies that have a nice charred edge, but a pale underside. It's almost as if the charring is just there for show. And then there are some that are, quite frankly, burnt. There is a difference between charred and burnt, and to be sure, some customers aren't aware of that distinction, complaining that their pizza is burnt when in fact it's simply charred, on the surface. But some pizzaioli don't always seem to know the difference, either, serving up burnt pies and explaining that they're "supposed" to look that way.
This pizza showed the difference. It was lightly charred along the edge, and speckled with char spots underneath, across its bottom surface. In other words, it wasn't just blackened around the perimeter, by being exposed to the open flame for a few seconds - it was charred (not burnt) from the flame, yes, but also from coming into direct contact with a very hot oven floor. The edge was thick, but not heavy or dense, with crisp bubbles of charred dough encasing a series of small air pockets.
Despite the charring of the crust, the toppings didn't appear to be overdone at all. The fresh mozzarella had melted beautifully into the sauce, and the basil was wilted but still retained some of its vibrant green color.
What really struck me most, though, visually, was not the charring. On lifting up one side of my pizza (pizzas here arrive at the table unsliced, as in Italy), I found that the crust was actually translucent. If you've made bread or pizza, you probably are familiar with the "windowpane" test, which involves stretching a small piece of dough in your fingers. If you can stretch the dough thin enough for light to pass through it without the dough tearing, the gluten has been adequately developed. If it tears, keep kneading. This entire pie had been stretched to that point,with no holes or tears.
But the proof of the pizza is in the eating. If the crust were overly dry, or floppy, or flavorless, then its translucence would be no more than an impressive, but purely technical achievement. I mean, I can stretch Silly Putty until it's paper-thin, too, but I wouldn't want to eat it.
Happily, this pizza delivered on that score as well. For all its thinness, the crust was neither dried out nor limp, retaining enough structural integrity to bear the weight of the toppings, yet supple enough to fold without cracking.
As for the flavor - even before it reached my mouth, this pizza greeted my nostrils with its aroma, an enticing blend of toasty crust, tomatoes and basil. Those flavors - as felicitous a trinity as any in gastronomy - carried through on the palate. The sauce was rich, with a hint of sweetness from the tomatoes, and judiciously applied, as were the smooth, creamy slices of fresh mozzarella and the torn leaves of basil.
I did sample one of my companions' Diavola pies, which was also outstanding, broadly similar to the Margherita but with a peppery kick and the added textural dimension of thinly sliced soppressata. But I was more than happy with the subtle simplicity of my Margherita.
Particularly on a first visit, I rarely identify myself as a pizza blogger, and to the extent possible, I try to be subtle about taking notes and photos. I'm not looking for special treatment. But I had to meet the person responsible for this pizza.
That would be 32-year-old Giuseppe Paciullo, a native of Salerno, Italy, who learned his craft as a youngster before bringing his skills to New York City, where he spent the last few years before moving here. He told me that his girlfriend, who's from Rochester, convinced him to come here and open his own pizzeria, and all I can say is, thank you, girlfriend.
Talk with Giuseppe for a few minutes and you'll realize how devoted he is to pizza. With the exception of the fresh basil, all his ingredients are imported from Italy. I'm all for buying American, but this tells me that Giuseppe knows his ingredients, knows what he needs to make the pizza he has in mind, and will settle for nothing less.
Fiamma's oven burns a blend of hardwoods, which is the only heat source. And what a heat source. Giuseppe told me that the oven temperature generally reaches about 1000 degrees.
I used to think that stuff about extremely high oven temperatures was just so much hype, but I can't argue with the results here. As I spoke with Giuseppe, I watched as he put two pies in the oven, turning them every few seconds, and then took them out after what couldn't have been more than two minutes, perfectly done.
(That heat, I'm sure, is directly related to the thinness of the crusts. A thick crust would either come out with an underdone interior or a burnt exterior. But these? Perfect.)
Fiamma is a small place, with just a few tables and a small bar, which is awaiting its liquor license (although they appeared to have wine). Unless I'm way off the mark, you may soon find it packed on many nights, so I'd get there ASAP. They don't deliver, either - this is not the kind of pizza that you want to spend 30 minutes in a box before it gets to you. Only sheer willpower kept me from devouring my entire pie at lunch, and although it seems a crime to put this into a styrofoam container, I wanted my wife and daughter to be able to try it, even under less than ideal conditions (we'll all go there as a family soon, I assure you).
I've never been to Italy *sigh* but my gut tells me that this is as close as I've come, pizzawise. Forgive me if I've strayed into hyperbole here at times, but this was some of the best pizza I've had, period. It was right in so many ways, from the charring to the light, crisp, supple texture of the crust to the blend of flavors of the toppings ... well, I've think I've said all that I can. The next step is for you to go there and try it for yourself. Do I guarantee you'll like it as much as I did? No, and I never would. People's tastes can differ. But if your taste in pizza is anywhere close to mine, and I'm thinking it probably is if you're reading this blog, do yourself a favor and try Fiamma. It's a great example of the pizzamaker's art.
Fiamma, 1308 Buffalo Road, Gates
Lunch Mon. - Fri. 11:30 - 2:30
Dinner Mon. - Sat. 4:30 - 10:00
Sunday for private parties only