Restaurant Review - Varuni Napoli piles on the charm and the toppings

Family atmosphere, OK pizza at new Morningside pizzeria

It's a mild summer evening, and Neapolitan pizzeria Varuni Napoli is swarming with young families. Kids take turns climbing onto the shiny green moped parked near the restaurant's glass-covered façade. Toddlers balance precariously on long benches flanking the distressed white tables. The children alternate between eating dinner and playing with the thick, illustrated "smorfia napoletana" cards that say things such as "il padre dei bambini" with a corresponding picture of a father reading to his son. Servers dodge kids and force smiles. The scene borders on chaos. At its center is the restaurant's ever-charming chef and co-owner, Luca Varuni.

At Varuni Napoli, it's easy to get swept up in the sleek and expansive space and forget you're in Atlanta. You could imagine finding a similar restaurant almost anywhere in Europe. The restaurant's modern industrial look includes an exposed brick wall, glossy poured concrete floors, stacked red cans of tomatoes, and hanging dried herbs. There's a nice patio out back.

Varuni was a founding pizzaiolo at Giovanni Di Palma's Antico Pizza Napoletana, and it's easy to compare his new Morningside pizzeria to the Westside institution. Antico and Varuni Napoli are very different places, however, serving very different pizzas. Like Antico, Varuni Napoli offers a version of Naples-style pizza, which can range from dry to soupy, depending on the pizzaiolo's style. There is no one true, authentic Neapolitan pizza. Not even in Naples. The most important element is flavor, and flavor is where Varuni's pies falter. Although the Naples native sources the right ingredients, including doppio zero flour, and has beautiful Stefano Ferrara ovens, the pies buckle under Varuni's kitchen-sink approach to pizza construction.

The menu includes pizza, a handful of antipasti, and desserts. There are sections for artisan and classic pies in both red and white sauce variations, a build-your-own margherita section, and two calzones. The bar serves beer, wine, and spirits such as Luca's limoncello.

Varuni Napoli's slightly sweet pizza crust has a nice amount of blistering and provides a satisfying crunch and chewy tug. It could be a touch airier, but this is Varuni's style. Since Varuni makes a softer crust, which causes the juices to collect in the center as the pizza cools to room temperature, construction is key. Yet, many of the pizzas feature five or more ingredients on top of the delicate dough. The Porreca Piccante is topped with mozzarella, nduja (a spicy spreadable pork sausage), capicola, soppressata, cherry tomatoes, hot peppers, Pecorino Romano, and basil. The abundance of ingredients coupled with the excess of tomato sauce makes what should be a complex pizza sloppy and one-note. The Bastardo — a pizza of fresh buffalo mozzarella, mixed pepperoni, nduja, Pecorino Romano, and basil — works in spite of its excess thanks to a layer of spice from the nduja, chewy pepperoni, and the pop of fresh herbs.

The Bastardo aside, I found most of the red sauce pies wanting. Even the margherita failed to come together due to lack of seasoning. I prefer the white pies such as the Mamma, its crackly crust smeared with melted Provoleta, Vesuvian cherry tomatoes, prosciutto di Parma, Pecorino Romano, and pert baby arugula. The absence of sauce makes the pizza more manageable and allows the toppings to shine.

Generally I prefer pizza, but Varuni Napoli's calzones have been a surprising favorite. I found them more manageable and better composed. The baked Scugnizzo calzone is full of buffalo mozzarella, fior di latte mozzarella, buffalo ricotta, salami, basil, and topped with roasted mushrooms, San Marzano tomato sauce, Pecorino Romano, basil, and extra virgin olive oil. It's on the drier side, even though it has a ton of cheese, and never failed to remind me of a fancy Hot Pocket. The crust of the fried Reginella calzone is slightly sweet and substantial without being dense. When you pull away a slice from the half moon, the mix of mozzarella and buffalo ricotta, pink from tomatoes and clinging to pieces of salami, spills out.

Appetizers are disappointing, with the exception of the creamy burrata served with pickled eggplant strands. The arancini, fried balls of Arborio rice mixed with peas and beef, and the panzerotti, fried potato croquettes with Pecorino Romano, from the street food menu were tepid and, again, underseasoned. The salad was so overdressed, the leaves of lettuce hung limply on the fork like a clock in a Salvador Dalí painting. The components of the antipasto platter are haphazardly chosen and arranged, making it feel more like a deli platter than an upscale cured meats board. Varuni's attempt to differentiate his business from the competition that serves only pizza and desserts is understandable, but these appetizers detract from — rather than enhance — the dining experience.

When he first opened, Varuni's Italian family helped out at the restaurant. If you were lucky enough to dine there during that time, you were probably treated to his mother's pasta e patate, a soup/pasta hybrid made with tiny ditalini, broken potatoes, smoky strings of Provoleta, and a couple of spoon-tender chunks of braised smoked ham. I have not stopped thinking about it. None of the pizzas have had that effect.

Varuni has a lot of heart and treats his customers well. When he entertains children by showing them the pizza ovens, it allows parents to eat a slice and take a breath or a much-needed sip of wine. He's a smart restaurateur, but his pizzas feel Americanized instead of true to his Naples roots. Varuni may be catering to his customers a little too much. Some simplifying, coupled with his brand of hospitality, should continue to reward him with the adoration it takes others a lifetime to build. Such changes could make this restaurant the modern European eatery it aspires to be.

??EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been updated to name correctly the brand of ovens used at Varuni Napoli. The restaurant uses Stefano Ferrara ovens.

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