It’s 9pm on Friday at Varuni Napoli, the five-year-old pizzeria across from Ansley Mall. Virtually packed when we arrived, its largely neighborhood crowd has already begun to thin out when someone begins shouting indecipherable comments. There’s a sudden explosion. Before I can hit the floor and beg Jesus not to let me die in a pizzeria, I catch sight of the terrorist – an employee wielding a confetti cannon, announcing that we will all be receiving plates of free pasta. Xanax will not be included.
Varuni is one of the pizzerias that opened during the so-called Pizza Wars that erupted in Atlanta about 10 years ago. That drama began with the arrival of Neapolitan-style pies in our pizza-dumb city. Unlike your beloved Pizza Hut pies, the Neapolitan is thin crusted and cooked almost instantly in a hellishly hot wood-fired oven. The quick cooking typically leaves the center of the pizza wet, so that you can’t pick up a slice easily. You can fold it. Or you can use a knife and fork. Or you can shut up and just cram it in your pizza-pie hole.
Five years ago, I found Varuni mediocre and for the most part still do. This is a subjective judgment — my friends liked it — but I really want flavors with more intensity than I find here. During my dinner last Friday, I most liked our starters: a plate of three arancini (rice balls) and three panzerotti (potato croquettes). Both were fried to a deep, crunchy brown finish. The panzerotti, the best, were filled with a smoky mozzarella tempered by a bit of parsley. The arancini, which seem to be appearing on menus everywhere, were more complex. The interior held fresh, not smoked, mozzarella combined with some beef and a few peas. A red sauce was provided but I liked eating both naked. We also ordered a cluster of three “Mama’s famous meatballs.” I’m not sure they deserve fame, but they were fine — the usual ground meat in a heavy tomato sauce, topped with cheese.
We ordered two pizzas — the red Porreca Piccante and the white Oro Bianco. (Actually, we didn’t order the Oro Bianco, but that’s what they brought to the table.) Both pizzas left me mystified. They certainly conformed, structurally, to the Neapolitan standard. The outer crust was billowy and chewy; the rest of the crust was thin and a bit wet in the center; the pizza was tattooed with char marks from the fiery oven. I want more crunch, but I mainly want better toppings. The Porreca Piccante was the most mystifying. The few hot Italian peppers properly earned it a spicy rating, but I could hardly find any spicy salami or “spreadable” pork sausage in its ragu sauce. The mozzarella and pecorino were there, sort of. The Oro Bianco pie was nearly as strange. The menu lists these ingredients: fresh mozzarella, buffalo ricotta, taleggio cheese, pancetta, pecorino, basil, black truffle oil, and black pepper. That pancetta was almost as sparse as the basil leaves. I got no taste of truffle oil (which is fine, actually) and no sting from black pepper. In the end, I yielded a good bit of my share of the pizzas to my friends. I passed on the Nutella calzone that I was dying to order … until I saw one being made and knew that it would need a lot more Nutella.
We were done by the time the confetti canon announced the free pasta, but we held onto our seats. Soon carts were rolling around dispensing little dishes of penne pasta in a simple, light tomato sauce. It would be charitable to call the pasta al dente. It was undercooked, but, honestly, I liked it better than the pizza and that’s sad because there’s no pasta on the menu.
Varuni is open for dinner only during the week, but lunch is served weekends. A satellite operation at Krog Street Market is open for both meals every day.
1540 Monroe Drive