It'd be possible to fall in love with Antico if the pizza was just OK. The feel of the place alone is enough to inspire instant infatuation long before a slice ever touches your lips: the sparse counter and the sassy Italian woman behind it; the rustic communal wooden table outfitted with bowls of salt, raw garlic and hot red peppers; the blaring opera music; the plate over the kitchen door with Jesus looking down at the diners. And that kitchen – with its cooks in kerchiefs, massive wood-burning ovens, orders shouted in Italian – hums with authenticity.
But luckily, the pizza isn't merely OK. Just as it would be easy to love Antico for the atmosphere alone, it'd be possible to love this food if it were served in a filthy dive with plastic tables and terrible service. It's the meeting of the two – the utterly charming restaurant and the outrageously delicious pizza – that makes Antico the subject of intense adoration by almost everyone who walks through the door. Including me.
Antico is the darling of Giovanni Di Palma, a New York/New Jersey transplant whose grandfather arrived at Ellis Island from Naples in 1914. Since a trip to Naples five years ago, Di Palma had been looking for a way to open his own Naples-style pizzeria in the U.S. A family member tipped him off to a space for sale in Atlanta while Di Palma was making pizzas in New York. He says he walked in and bought the former bakery on Hemphill Avenue on the spot.
The total-immersion European feel of the place is no coincidence. Everything at Antico is flown in from Italy. The three Acunto ovens, which cook at around 1,000 degrees. The bufula Mozzarella. The San Marzano D.O.P. tomatoes. Di Palma sources the flour for the crust from a flourmill in his ancestral hometown outside of Naples. Even the restaurant's website (complete with an "our story" section rife with tales about praying to the sound of Christianity's first bell) is registered as Italian. When I asked the woman at the counter if they served tap water, she said, "No, it's not Italian. We only serve Italian things. Only the air is Atlantan." She then laughed her hearty Italian laugh and got me a small glass of tap water.
The cooks (including former Fritti pizzaiolo Enrico Liberato) chatter to one another in Italian as they man the giant ovens, sliding in pizzas for a mere 60 seconds before the intense heat blisters the crust, then raising them to the top of the domed stone cavern to melt the cheese and marry the flavors. If you're lucky, Di Palma will invite you to sit at the table in the kitchen so you can watch this dance. If not, you eat just beyond the kitchen door at the communal table flanked by prep areas. You might find beside your seat a pile of cipolinis, freshly peeled and ready to be used on the San Gennaro pizza, along with salsiccia sausage, sweet red peppers, and bufala mozzarella.
I hunger for the San Gennaro pizza the most often. There's something about the combination of those red peppers and the cipolinis – two levels of sweetness, two types of tang – that has me craving more almost as soon as I'm done. But there are other contenders for my affection. The blistered crusts on these pies have such balance, such crisp, savory lightness, I'm bound to gobble it up no matter the topping. That said, the classic Margherita lacks tang and salt. It's still delicious when loaded up with the garlic and salt from the cute bowls on the table, but the most successful pies here are the ones that load up on flavor-forward ingredients. I adore the lasagna pizza, topped with ricotta, Romano and meatballs. All that weight on top does leave the crust a bit soggy, but it's worth it for the gooey, meaty flavor.
Speaking of gooey, there's plenty of reasons to try the calzones, especially for the Gigiotto, a melty, magical combination of sausage, bufala mozzarella and broccoli rabe so bitter it verges on piquant. The melted bufula becomes almost ricotta-like, and the sweet tomato sauce on the side balances the experience, making for a miracle of texture and flavor.
Antico's pies don't travel well (although they do revive in the oven), and tend to get soggy fast. This only adds to the urge to eat them as quickly as humanly possible. In all honestly, it was probably my fourth or fifth visit before I was truly able to put on my critic's hat and evaluate the food in any kind of thoughtful manner. Prior to that I just snarfed the stuff down and, stupidly happy, wondered what had just happened. For once in my professional career, I resented having to break down a restaurant and quantify its quality. I think Antico's food rises above that. I think it speaks directly to our instincts. Me. Want. Eat.
This is the power of Antico – its pizzas are not perfect, but they tug at the heartstrings and the taste buds in a way no other pizza in Atlanta does. The space isn't luxurious, but it has soul and charm, and an authenticity of spirit rarely seen in these parts. Even when it comes to pizza, love isn't always totally rational. The heart, and the stomach, want what they want.
Watch below as we chat with Giovanni Di Palma, owner of Antico Pizza.