Wednesday, March 20, 2013 at 1 p.m.
"This place is the real deal," I said. My friend Angelo, who spent his formative years playing calcio in a dusty lot in Catanzaro, near the toe of the Italian boot, rolled his eyes.
"Everybody always says that," he grumbled, "and then I go and they're putting sausage and pepperoni on crappy focaccia and I have to smile and choke it down with a lot of Chianti that got deported from Italy. And it's in downtown Fullerton, not exactly Little Italy, you know?"
I finally convinced him to go to Fuoco Pizzeria Napoletana by pulling food snob rank on him and telling him I'd pay his bill if he didn't like it. Three nights later, I got a text. "I'll pay my own bill. Good. But you need to tell him he doesn't know what the hell a quattro stagioni is."
There's been a rash of Neapolitan pizzeria openings in Orange County, mostly by non-Italians who had the apotheosis of pizza in its original homeland and who want to bring it here. That's not to say they're bad, but they're not Italian any more than the Armenian-owned slice joint on the corner is Italian.
But then there's Tullio Ceccarelli, who was taught by his nonni how to make pizza, who looks like every barrel-chested man I grew up with in New Jersey, and whose accent takes me back home in an instant. Italian? Ma certo--in spades. His pizzas come un-cut, and the friendly, informal servers aren't shy about saying so. (Italians eat pizza with a knife and fork, not with their hands like us barbaric Americans.)
The pizza is thin-crusted, with a thin layer of cheese, excellent sauce (or not--not all the pizzas have tomato sauce), and toppings that accent the pizza rather than blanketing it. If you've got to have your meat, try the funghi e salsiccia, with sausage and mushrooms; but don't discount the romana, where the lightest anchovies ever give the pizza a deep, but not fishy, umami taste. My favorite, though, was the salsiccia e friarielli, blobs of fennel-scented sausage and pieces of broccoli rabe on a standard pizza. Something about sausage takes the bitter edge off the rapini, and I devoured it.
The salads, too, are straight from Italy. Italians don't usually put forty ingredients in a salad, and an Italian salad is about the greens first and foremost. There's a pear-and-arugula pizza, but if you want arugula, get the insalata rucolina, baby arugula and roasted artichoke hearts dressed with the simplest of dressings, olive oil and lemon juice, hiding under a blizzard of shaved Parmigiano Reggiano. It seems like it would be bitter and salty, but it's perfectly balanced.
If there's anything bad to say about Fuoco, it's that occasionally the center of the pizza is a little underdone; there could be a little more char around the edges sometimes, things that would come with just one more Ave Maria, piena di grazia in the oven. And Angelo was right: Ceccarelli's interpretation of the quattro stagioni, traditionally black olives, artichoke hearts, ham and mushrooms, each in their own quadrant, skips the olives and artichoke in favor of salami and ricotta.
Nevertheless, it won the highest accolade in my book when my famously snobby Italian friend went back. It's still in the very upper echelons of pizza in Orange County, it's within walking distance of about five dozen places to drink, and for the moment, it's open late (they close when they run out of dough). It's a gem in downtown Fullerton.