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Pie lovers have no problem driving to the suburbs for the growing number of new restaurants



Brooklyn-born Michael Fortunato was so frustrated by the lack of quality pizza options in his Smyrna neighborhood of Vinings Springs that he decided to take his family's restaurant tradition and his catering chops and open up his own place -- literally around the corner from his house.

"I couldn't find anything to eat!" Fortunato complains. "I never ate pizza around here in Atlanta, and it's one of my favorite foods, y'know?"

That was three months ago, and already Pizzeria Fortunato can claim its place among the best in the Atlanta area.

Like so many other stellar pizza places that have emerged outside the Perimeter over the past year, Fortunato's enterprise was no lark. While he had a passion for the perfect pie, he also made a study of the area before he opened his restaurant. He sensed that people had to be fed up with the same old greasy, salty mediocrity that marks so many pizza chains.

So he partnered up with old friend and veteran pie-maker Dallas Prezzano, sent him to Naples to study with Fortunato's relatives, and started thinking quality.

The result is fresh offerings such as the signature eggplant parmigiana, blessed with a non-filling pie crust hosting ricotta and mozzarella cheese, homemade tomato sauce and lightly breaded and fried eggplant.

Pizzeria Fortunato has joined a steady stream of locally owned, high-quality pizza joints that offer their own interpretations of New York- and Sicilian-style pies. While the suburbs outside Atlanta's I-285 Perimeter have long been derided as the land of the pathetic sheep, it's the hot spot for great pizza in the area. It's ironic and even counterintuitive to see Atlantans from inside the Perimeter trekking out to the nether regions for Fortunato's (5350 United Drive, Smyrna, 770-432-7454) and other such seemingly far-flung pizza joints as Verra-Zanno Pizzeria (11600 Medlock Bridge Road, Ste. 190, Duluth, 678-473-0209) and Traditions Pizzeria (2590 Peachtree Industrial Blvd., Duluth, 678-584-8688), and the suddenly expanding empire of Bella's Pizzeria (Smyrna, Austell, and more recently Acworth). All are building on a suburban tradition of sorts set forth previously by mainstays such as La Bella Pizzzeria (2635 Sandy Plains Road, No. A7, Marietta, 770-973-0052).

It's not like Atlantans are lacking for pie options. They have the upscale, Euro-style offerings (such as Baraonda and Fritti), college hangouts (Everybody's Pizza), neighborhood spots (Grant Central, Little Azio, Savage, Slice, Little Five Points Pizza) and revered gems that are comparatively young (Cameli's) or old (Rosa's), and even chains that are local (Fellini's) and regional (Mellow Mushroom).

Maybe intown Atlanta has reached a saturation point. Regardless, OTP is the place to be for consistently authentic New York-style pizza -- where the crust is thin but sturdy enough to fold a slice, and the cheese and sauce are both homemade-fresh and spread modestly and evenly about.

Sal Alu, a Sicilian-born 44-year-old, has relatives who had moved to the Duluth area. They raved about having four actual seasons of the year, seeing trees changing colors and having more space compared with the crammed neighborhoods of Fort Lauderdale, where he was living. Alu was as intrigued by Duluth as he was the potential for expanding his family restaurant business.

Alu scoped out the area and learned that while there was a lot of talk about New York-style pizza, there weren't a lot of places doing it the way he would.

"It had sentimental value," says Alu, who grew up with a pizza place on practically every other block of his Ridgewood, Queens, neighborhood.

Alu's style, inspired by the pizzas of his neighborhood and family, shows a healthy respect for the three basic elements: dough, sauce and cheese.

"[Making dough is] an art because it's not just taking ingredients and putting it together," Alu says. "You have to be conscientious of a lot of different factors."

Alu makes his own sauce, and it is my personal favorite of all the OTP pizzerias that I sampled, probably because of his willingness to make oregano his main spice. Sometimes that's a risky decision considering how strong oregano can be; it can make or break a sauce. Alu gets the proportion just right.

"It's probably one of the most pungent of the herbs we use," Alu says. "It adds distinction to the pizza. If you ever had a real New York-style pizza, you can taste the oregano right away."

Homemade cheese is another key factor, and both Alu and Fortunato take great pride in their own blending of the cheeses. Alu uses the popular Grande cheese, but also makes homemade mozzarella out of the curd from whole milk. Fortunato makes his from buffalo milk and curd he imports from Italy (along with a lot of other ingredients).

The result is incomparable freshness, more flavor and less of the chewy quality that pre-packaged cheese takes on.

Oftentimes, it's the attention to the little details that can make eating a pizza a more special experience. Verra-Zanno's owner, Joe Amitrano, who grew up in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn, offers in his Duluth location a little bit more attention to the ambience with a dimly lit dining room and a little more distance from the kitchen. Honoring the precision required for the thin-crust New York-style pizza, the 32-year-old pre-cooks his Bari sausage and shaves it into tiny sheets, "so when it cooks it has a crispness around the edges. It complements all the ingredients that way."

This dedication to quality debunks the old adage, "Sex is like pizza; even when it's bad it's good." Maybe it's because, if both are done right, there's a better payoff.

"People don't mind the drive," Fortunato says. "People in Atlanta are used to driving, anyway, so they don't mind making the drive for good pizza.

"They're used to better things," he notes. "That's why I wasn't worried. If you're good, they'll find you."

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