913 E Pike St, 322-9234
Wed-Sun 5-11 pm.
"I like a pizza place where you can get a Jack Daniel's," says my father-in-law, Chet, who is wise in many ways. The full bar is perhaps the least of Via Tribunali's many charms, for at last there is scrumptious, Neapolitan-style pizza on Capitol Hill, on Pike Street no less, right where a gal might need to get a pizza before a show.
The restaurant, brought to you by Michael McConnell, who owns Caffe Vita, is cave-dark--barely lit with wall-mounted candles and candle-like bulbs that dangle from iron chandeliers high up in the rafters. The only bright object in the house sits gleaming in the corner like a ceramic igloo. It is a white-tiled, wood-burning oven--the heart of the restaurant and the explanation for the cord of wood that lines the entryway to the restaurant.
In front of the oven labor some cooks, one of whom is himself imported from Napoli. Like the oven, he's clad in white, from his bandana do-rag to his perforated clogs--a European cooks way of saying "check me out, look how clean I work." It's an impressive ethic, especially if you've ever seen my own work clogs, clotted and gummed up with who-knows-what kind of kitchen drips and splashes.
From my spot in a high-walled booth, I watch Mr. Clean make his pizzas on a marble surface. He avoids the attention-seeking mid-air dough spinning of the New York-style pizza makers, and instead works the dough onto the marble counter, pressing it thin thin thin before finishing it with a quick low flip. The end result is a skinny pizza, yielding at the center, with a char-speckled crust that's still tender. No need for those head ratcheting chews used when eating less-pedigreed pizzas. (Although it is frustratingly easy to dump the toppings clean off the soft crust--they must have a trick to avoid this in Naples).
Anyone would be crazy not to prime for pizza with salumi misto, a wooden plank draped with assorted cured meat from Salumi ($7.50). The pink mortadella puts all bologna to shame, the braesola, cured beef, tastes a little tipsy--oh, the wonders of meaty fermentation!
Our waitress, who speaks with the pizza man in fluent Italian, is careful with the timing of our Vesuvio calzone ($13.50). No wonder, it is the pizzaiola's equivalent of those tiki drinks served around a sterno-toting ceramic "volcano"--slightly silly, but a fantastic showstopper. It's a double-layered pizza, sent seething and bubbling from the oven, topped with tomato sauce lava. It's too scary to eat for a moment, but inside it's a mellow affair, lush and fatty with ricotta, cooked prosciutto, and mushrooms.
Chet keeps insisting that my mother-in-law, Evelyn, really wants a pepperoni pizza ($13), but from his enthusiasm, I think he's the one who wants it. I'm glad, because I wouldn't have ordered it myself, but it is good, with islands of fresh mozzarella, and thin slices of salami that have turned into crisp cups in the oven's heat.
Truth be told, though, I'm most impressed by the pizza marinara, ($8) which is typically the ascetic's pizza--just tomato sauce, dried oregano, and a stray garlic clove or two. When I've tried it in the past, the red sauce would cook into a pasty skin atop the dough. I'd pretend to get into its minimalism, but in the back of my mind I'd be wondering, how pleasing is this cheese-free pizza, really? But here at VT, the tomato gathers in a shallow scarlet puddle, and it is vibrant and delicious. Chet, who'd been skeptical, says "I thought it would be too... plain, but it is really good."
Come dessert, the tartufo ($5) does not pussyfoot around: It is a big ball of vanilla ice cream filled with crunchy espresso crystals and drowned in a shot of Vita's own coffee. It is good, but stee-rong. Only Chet, with his near-perfect tolerance to caffeine dares to eat more than a spoonful or two. A light chocolate cake ($5), of the sponge cake and boozy-sweet variety, turns out to be the only Italian import that has failed to impress me at Via Tribunali. As for the rest of the imports--the adorable oven, the guy with the fast hands and the clean clogs, and the darkly grapey bottle of wine from Campania ($21)--you're welcome to stick around for a while.