They say all good things must come to an end, and "Pizza Crawl" finally did so earlier this week - just in time for the Miami Herald to get on the pizza bandwagon. Another troupe of pizza fans came along for the final edition, which made its two last stops in South Beach at Fratelli la Bufala and the newly opened Casale.
Fratelli la Bufala
I had always been curious about Fratelli la Bufala, which came to South Beach with an authentic Italian pedigree. The brand was supposedly started by the sons of a family of Italian buffalo mozzarella producers who thus dubbed themselves the "Fratelli la Bufala" and has nearly 100 locations, mostly in Italy but also including such far-flung outposts as Hannover, Strasbourg, Istanbul and Dubai.
The full contingent of pizza-tasters had not yet come on board when we arrived at Fratelli, so we limited our tasting to only four pies. When we first started the pizza crawl, we had the idea of sampling a "control group" margherita from each restaurant; that idea was quickly abandoned as the group sought to identify the best "signature" offering from each place (a couple additional unofficial rules instead came into play: one was that if a pizza included the name of the restaurant, it had to be ordered; and another was that if a combination sounded completely unlikely - i.e., the "Joey's Pizza" with tuna, salami, gorgonzola, capers and spinach - we ought to order it just to see if it could actually work). While I lobbied to try a traditional margherita at Fratelli, I was boisterously voted down and instead we tried:
La Reale - tomato sauce, bufala mozzarella, bufala smoked mozzarella, bufala ricotta & prosciutto crudo
Diavola - tomato sauce, spicy salame, mozzarella, basil & crushed red pepper
Vesuviana - fresh cherry tomatoes, smoked bufala mozzarella, bufala mozzarella, green olives & anchovies
Sausage & Broccoli Rabe - a special, double-crusted pizza, explained further below.
Across the board, I found the basics at Fratelli were done right - the crust was thin but not cracker-crisp, with some nice bubbles and just a hint of charred bits; the cheese was high quality; the sauce struck a nice balance between acidic and sweet. Yet while they were all good, there was nothing about any of the pies we tried at Fratelli that made you sit up and say "This is a great pizza!"
Though I like the sausage and broccoli rabe combo, I was suspicious of the special we ordered, which was described as being a pizza topped with another pizza crust on top to create a stuffed effect (though not crimped and sealed like a calzone). This sounded too much like some Frankenstein-ish Pizza Hut creation dreamed up for the sake of creating a new product line, but it turned out to be fine, though I still could have easily lived without the extra crust. I am not usually a fan of the multi-cheese approach adopted by the Reale, as I find it's usually overkill, but this one was OK, even if the multitude of cheeses made this pie a bit soggier than the others. The Diavola had a nice assertive spiciness from the salame and crushed pepper, but the one that showed the most promise for me was the Vesuviana, which sported ripe juicy cherry tomatoes, a nice element of intrigue from the smoked buffalo mozzarella, and some high quality anchovies.
Despite missing a "wow" effect, Fratelli la Bufala put out some good pizzas. It is surely the only place in town where pretty much all the pies are topped with high quality mozzarella di bufala, though their prices still remain mostly in the same neighborhood as other pizzerias (mostly in the range of $11-15).
Fratelli la Bufala
437 Washington Avenue
Miami Beach, FL 33139
[Sorry, this place has closed]
Casale is a sister restaurant to Sardinia, which opened nearly three years ago and has a well-executed focus on the cuisine of its namesake region of Italy. I had heard Casale described as a pizzeria, but it is more ambitious than that. In addition to nearly twenty pizza choices, there is a mozzarella and burrata bar with a number of options for accompaniments, more than a half dozen crudos, several antipasti and salads, and a pretty sizable selection of sandwiches and a few other items as well. It is also a much larger space than I had anticipated, indeed it's a sprawling space with still more seating in an indoor/outdoor upstairs area too.
Since this was the final round of Pizza Crawl and we were only visiting two establishments for the night, we ended up sampling a pretty broad array of Casale's pizza options:
Pugliese - rapini & wild boar sausage
Funghetto - wild mushrooms, taleggio & sage
Smeraldina - braised fennel & bottarga
Catalana - chorizo, manchego, tomato & olives
Atomica - spinach, artichokes, guanciale & quail eggs
Sag Harbor - mussels, clams, baby octopus & shrimp
Buongustaio - baby zucchini, parma prosciutto & burrata
Sagaponack - potatoes, anchovies & ricotta
Super Margherita - prosciutto, bufala mozzarella & arugula
I thought that the crust at Casale was among the best that we've sampled, thin but with a bit of chew, nicely blistered and bubbled and crisp around the edges, if occasionally veering a little too far into blackened and charred territory (an assumed risk when you're dealing with a hot oven). The toppings were often very vividly flavored - the braised fennel on the Smeraldina was silky in texture and bright in flavor, the mushrooms on the Funghetto were rich and meaty with a nice resinously woodsy note from the fresh sage leaves. A few in particular I thought were complete and unqualified successes - the Catalana (an unorthodox but effective use of Spanish ingredients), the Atomica (the spinach jazzed up with the salty guanciale and the use of quail eggs a great way of distributing their yolky goodness across the entire pizza) and the Super Margherita hit all the right spots for me.
On more than one occasion, though, the promise of the menu didn't quite come through on the plate, because the flavor of a key component was missing in action. The Smeraldina was missing the funky whiff of bottarga, making it a one-note fennel composition. The Pugliese appeared almost completely devoid of broccoli rabe. Others just didn't quite click - the potatoes in the Sagaponack were mushy, the Sag Harbor a vast improvement over the seafood pizza we had at Spris but still not quite right.
Despite these miscues, though, Casale's basic execution is fundamentally sound, and the menu is more adventurous than many of the other places we visited. While other pizzerias may boast a lengthier list of pizzas, many are just minor variations on the same theme, whereas Casale's are for the most part each very distinctly different and often more ambitious.
1800 Bay Road
Miami Beach, FL 33139
So after 53 pies at 11 different locations, what conclusions can be drawn? I have a few:
(1) Good pizza isn't easy to do right. Some places where I've had good experiences previously had poor execution on our Pizza Crawl visits. When you're working with extremely high cooking temperatures and short cooking times, the difference between soggy, perfect, and burnt can be a matter of seconds.
(2) You can't make a truly great pizza without great ingredients. The places that stood out to me the most - Pizzavolante, Racks, and Casale - are using high quality ingredients, and it shows in the finished product.
(3) Pizza is a great cheap meal. At most of the places we went, the pies averaged between $10-15. Most were of a size that you could probably split one between two people. Throw in a beer or a cheap glass of wine, and how many other options are there for getting something that's hand-made with artisanal ingredients for under $10 a person?
(4) Miami may not be a pizza mecca, but it doesn't suck either. No doubt all the New Yorkers will chime in about how nothing you get here in Miami can compare to any pizza you can get on any street corner in New York. Whatever. I'm just happy to see some local restaurants taking pizza a little more seriously and for the most part succeeding in their efforts.
And with the Pizza Crawl officially concluded, I am going to reopen the "best pizza" poll with all the places that we've visited. Take a look over on the right-hand column and cast your vote.