Most Neapolitan pizzerias around these parts are content to have one wood-burning oven. The new Angelina's Pizzeria Napoletana at the new Los Olivos Marketplace in Irvine has two—both Stefano Ferrara, the Ferrari of fornos. These ovens, built by craftsmen and imported from Italy, can cost upward of $25,000 apiece. But that's the kind of place Angelina's is. It's an opulent, spare-no-expense, balls-to-the-wall restaurant whose interior design wouldn't look out of place in Milan's Quadrilatero Della Moda. There's a dramatic orange-and-yellow backlit panel above the open kitchen. The countertops are all marble. And the bartenders wear vest-and-old-school-cap ensembles that are not exactly uniforms; they're costumes. Remember what Michael Corleone wore when he first laid eyes on Apollonia in Sicily? Yeah, kind of like that.
The first Angelina's opened in Dana Point four years ago. But by comparison, that one now seems downright quaint—a Motel 6 compared to this Bellagio. So when I ordered my first pizza, it felt fitting to ask for the most expensive thing those costly ovens produce: the Vesuvius. What is it? "It kind of looks like a volcano," our waitress said, gesturing with her hands in an attempt to describe a pizza with an additional layer of dough plopped on top and crimped shut around the edges. When it came out, I noticed tomato sauce oozing from a fissure in the middle as though lava. To be honest, it looked more like a deflated whoopee cushion than Krakatoa. It was, however, the only pizza on the menu that had to be sliced tableside for the purpose of showmanship, which is, I think, the real reason the restaurant offers it at all.
If it's your first time, I would recommend the more standard pizzas, such as the margherita or the prosciutto. Both are baked so the exact right amount of cheese, sauce and crust fuse together to form a kismet of pizza. The Vesuvius I ordered, on the other hand, had most of the fillings of ricotta, mozzarella and salami concentrated near the middle. The rest consisted of just crust. But as with all the pizzas here, it starts with great dough, seasoned nicely and baked to a pillowy softness. The pies at Angelina's are possibly the most tender-crusted Neapolitan pizzas I've eaten. But with the Vesuvius, I was essentially eating two pizzas simultaneously, one on top of the other. I needed a salad. I settled on the tricolore, which has more interpretations out there than a Rorschach inkblot. Here, the chefs tossed delicate greens, red cherry tomatoes and white fennel—the three colors of the Italian flag—in a simple vinaigrette, whose lip-puckering acidity balanced the richness of the pizza's cheese. And to go with my salad, I ordered a fuming Naples-style zuppa di fagioli with lots of beans and a little guanciale—a soup so rustic and hearty, it bordered on campfire pork and beans.
What distinguished Angelina's from other upscale pizzerias was that it's unabashedly Italian. During my visits, I haven't encountered a server who couldn't be cast in a Fellini flick. Moreover, the chef, Sandro Nardone, is from a town near Naples, while the chief operating officer, Antonio Bevacqua, formerly of the Il Fornaio group, is from Tuscany. It's when you look at the menu that you realize the place aims to be not just a pizzeria, but also a restaurant that wants to give you a comprehensive Italian dining experience. The list is broken down to the proper categories of an Italian multi-course meal that begins with antipasti, a primi of pastas and a secondi of meat courses served with potatoes.
The best time to come, however, is during happy hour, when the most popular antipastis get discounted by half. The trio of self-collapsing beef-and-pork meatballs I ordered was $8 instead of $16. Also discounted: the spicy, sliced-on-the-bias Naples-style sausages seared to a slight char and drizzled with Gorgonzola cheese sauce, then served on a bed of roasted peppers as sweet as fruit punch. And though the eggplant parmigiana the chefs layered as though lasagna was a bit dull, I was glad I paid $6 for it instead of $13.
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Once, I asked our bartender to describe the panzerotti. He said, "I hate to say 'Hot Pocket,' but it's kind of like that, just much better." He was right: They were better—four puffy, bite-sized, deep-fried beignets made from the same dough as the pizza, but stuffed full of salami and ricotta. And for dessert, there's an amazing, house-made hazelnut gelato and—better yet—the Cocoaccino, a froth-topped cappuccino poured into a cup whose sides have been smeared with Nutella, that most Italian of spreads. Get it here before Starbucks appropriates it and makes it as ubiquitous as pumpkin spice.
Angelina's Pizzeria Napoletana, 8573 Irvine Center Dr., Irvine, (949) 536-5200; www.angelinaspizzeria.com. Open daily, 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Dinner for two, $25-$85, food only. Full bar.