Thursday, January 5, 2012

The wrong menu at Nicli Antica Pizzeria

Nicli Antica Pizzeria on Urbanspoon
One of my pet peeves about restaurants with websites -- especially nice flashy websites -- is incorrect information on the web.

Prior to the Food Bloggers going to Nicli Antica Pizzeria, I had looked through the menu and even posted a rough translation for everyone so we would be quite prepared rather than helpless and time-consuming at what was said to be a busy restaurant. That turned out to be utterly useless because not only have the ingredients changed somewhat, but some of the pizzas were even off the menu completely -- no more Diavolo or Quattro Formaggio, for example.

Before we get to my review of the pizzeria and the pizza, you can get a brief primer on certified Neapolitan pizza from this blog post. However, if you genuinely don't care about tradition or certification or whatever, that's actually okay. If you've never seen it before, Neapolitan pizza is basically a type of pizza that uses a deliberately thin, chewy, plain naan-like bread. Sometimes the thinner centre will result in the pizza being soggy there. Hopefully, it won't be.

There are people who rave about this style of pizza, and a lot of them tout the genuine-ness and Verace Pizza Napoletana (VPN) Association certification. They somehow "get it".
Sorry, but I don't. I look at what's on the plate and taste what goes in my mouth. Then I look at the bill.

There are many Neapolitan pizza places, but only some are certified. Others just do it in the same general style, as opposed to the type of mainstream pizza you get in North America from places like Pizza Hut. I'd been to a Neapolitan pizza place long ago at Marcello's on Commercial Drive and was soundly unimpressed. Nicli Antica Pizzeria does their pizza better -- more evenly distributed ingredients, no soggy centre -- but I'm still unimpressed.
As restaurant spaces go, Nicli Antica Pizzeria is a small restaurant with just a few seats. If you're there before 5.45pm, you should have no problem just waltzing in with even a fairly large group and getting seated. Closer to 6pm, this no-reservations place will see lineups.The style of pizza leans toward fast preparation (depending on how hot the oven has gotten, your pizza may very well have been in there for literally less than one minute before it's properly ready) and fast eating. Fast preparation is guaranteed. Fast eating is not. This sort of stuff is casual eats and finger food in Italy. At Nicli, I've watched people take a knife and fork to it and cut small chunks out of a single pizza. They will probably be there for a half hour.

The restaurant has a lot of white and looks very clean. It's a sudden spot of upscale spotless white in an otherwise dilapidated and scary part of East Cordova downtown Vancouver and an oasis of gentrified safety in the neighbourhood. Once you're in, they pack you in rather tightly unless you're just two to a square table (our party of six was squashed into two tables and three persons to a side).

The menu is basically $12-15 with no meat ingredients, or $15-20 with meat. Most of the pizzas have in common the pomodoro (tomato sauce), fior di latte (special mozzarella), and fresh basil on top.
If you pay attention, you'll notice the basil they use is guaranteed to be fresh because there are pots of live basil right there in reach of the chefs around the wood-fired oven. Unlike some pizza places, they do not plop it onto the pizza to be sent to the oven, but cut a big sprig and put it down on your fresh pizza.

Each pizza is about 30cm across, which puts it on par with a thin crust medium pizza. At Nicli, the width of the edge crust was about 1 centimeter. Under no circumstance should it be more than 11 inches in diameter, per the certification rules.

Because of the short cooking time and the thinness of it, it's ready to eat when it hits the table and it gets cold fast. For best results, eat it fast.
At Nicli Antica Pizzeria, they flatly refuse to cut it for you. They probably don't even have a pizza cutter. For sharing, you can basically score it with the knife provided and just tear it free. Whatever you do, though, it'll probably reach your mouth at most lukewarm and in the worst case on the slightly cold sides.

In general, because the pizza is deliberately thinner in the middle, it will be limp and you'll need to use both hands. The crust is intentionally soft and think so that you can fold it, which helps it to perk up and helps to prevent ingredients from sliding off.

Depending on the pizza, the ingredients will probably not be evenly spread out like North Americanized pizza. That means you won't a bit of everything in each bite. The Agnello (which had lamb sausage, goat cheese chunks, and whole garlic cloves) had ingredients dotted about and a single circle of lamb sausage chunks. In this rather extreme example, there is probably only one bite of a pizza slice which will see you get any sausage and/or any goat cheese.
Others, like the funghi (mushroom) were better, with mushrooms more evenly distributed everywhere.

Our group of six ordered three pizzas, with the intention of checking out desserts after. We got one basic Margherita (tomato, sliced mozzarella, basil and extra-virgin olive oil), one funghi (lots of mushrooms on top), and one agnello (with lamb sausage, goat cheese, and garlic cloves). I didn't get a copy of the menu, and since it's different from what's online, I can't say for sure what all the ingredients are exactly.

All three seemed to be on the bland side for me, strangely enough. Even the goat cheese didn't have the usual sharp smell or strong flavour. There were enough chunks that I was certain I should at least smell a bit of it from a distance.
Even worse, I watch a whole clove of garlic go into my mouth and ... nothing. Roasted garlic has a softened garlic taste, but to have it not make a difference on the pizza was shocking by its absence.
Maybe I was somehow ill that night, but my taste buds weren't registering any strong flavours. This is extremely suspicious and you should read this review with this caveat. Maybe having four ladies at the table had my senses dulled by scents they were wearing? At the very least, I thought that a whole clove of chewed up garlic in my mouth should have done something. (I did, however, taste the very decent tiramisu dessert just fine later).

Is Nicli Antica Pizzeria worth it? Is the whole concept of Pizza Napoletana worth it?
It's a different experience from "regular pizza", so you need to decide whether that experience is worth any money. "Regular pizza" doesn't necessarily taste better of worse -- it's a different experience. You don't get the same focus on chewy bread and a lighter feel from eating the pizza.

If you are expecting $20 to leave you very full and satisfied, then this "special pizza" is the wrong way to go. For a comparable price, you can get a heftier pizza from Flying Wedge with interesting flavours and ingredients. Even cheaper than this is frozen Delissio pizzas which sometimes go on sale at $10 for 2; or ~$10 for three large pepperoni pizzas from Costco.
(This said, you still need to be conscious of what you're buying. For example, President's Choice frozen bake-it-at-home Rip-and-Dip pizza for $8 is a lousy investment, even if you are getting more weight in food per dollar, as it's mostly bread).

If you are looking for the lighter-pizza experience, then the next issue is cost. A certified pizzeria must adhere to ingredients standards from VPN certification: Only fresh, all-natural, non-processed ingredients (preferably imported from Naples or Campania region) are acceptable: Flour (Type 00), San Marzano (plum) tomatoes, all natural Fior-di-Latte or Bufala fresh mozzarella, fresh basil, x-virgin olive oil, sea salt and yeast. All this theoretically adds to the cost.

If you can't wrap your head around $12 for a thin crust pizza with just tomato sauce, mozza, and basil then price is going to be a problem. Bottom line: If you can't taste the difference superior ingredients make, you're paying too much.
For another take on Nicli Antica Pizzeria, you might try Tess M. on Yelp, who really liked the Margherita at least (tomato sauce, mozzarella, basil).

And there's nothing wrong with not being able to value that difference. It's like wine: Sometimes, the difference between a $10 bottle and a $20 bottle either escapes you or you just don't care to pay extra for what tastes like a small difference to you.
Not wanting to find out what the difference is may make you a Philistine when it comes to fine dining, but in the end your dining experience and your money is your choice.

I'll review our desserts in another post.

We had three pizzas, three desserts. Bill for our table of six was about $77 before tip. The organizer came up with a suggested contribution of just under $15 per person, including tip.

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