At Fuoco Pizzeria Napoletana, everything that counts comes from Naples. Extra-fine Caputo flour is used to make the dough. San Marzano tomatoes are imported not just because they're required for certification by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana--a group that designates whether a pizza is truly of the Naples style--but also because they happen to taste the best. And the oven--a cherry-red monolith covered with a mosaic of tiles that resembles the helmeted head of an X-Men villain--was hand-built using sand from Mount Vesuvius by Stefano Ferrara, who is to Neapolitan-style pizza ovens what Enzo Ferrari is to Italian sports cars. All the die-hard Neapolitan pizzaiolos of late swear by this man's fornos as much as they rely on the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana seal to prove they know how to use it.
But perhaps the most important Italian import at Fuoco is the pizza maker himself. Owner Franco Ceccarelli is so charming he might have stepped out of a Fellini flick. On Fuoco's home page, you can watch a video outtake of Ceccarelli being teased by his son and partner, Tullio. The younger Ceccarelli asks whether he likes pineapple on his pizza. Clearly tickled by the ribbing, the elder Ceccarelli's eyes twinkle as he responds, "Pineapple? If I go to Hawaii, I have a nice pineapple. Maybe on the ham at Thanksgiving, a nice slice of pineapple. But on the pizza? No. Let's stick with what goes on the pizza!"
"Ranch dressing, right?" Tullio piles on, not taking his dad off the hook.
"Ranch dressing?" Franco asks with a chuckle, playfully throwing up his hands. "You're killing the pizza!"
That unscripted moment tells you that more than the provenance of the flour or cooking equipment, it's this guy who matters. In fact, go to any of the other Neapolitan pizza purveyors that now dot the OC landscape as if pepperoni, and they all boast the same seal, the same imported ingredients, even the same Ferrara oven. But at Fuoco, the guiding presence of Franco Ceccarelli makes all the difference.
The first night I visited, I saw Ceccarelli tending to that oven, stoking the smoldering embers, then sliding in one of his stretched-thin dough discs as carefully as though it were made of glass. Meanwhile, his wife directed the influx of customers flooding in from the front and back entrances. Their bodies swirled to a focal point--the podium at the dead center of the restaurant where she determines which lucky souls get to eat her husband's pizzas next.
Each pie Ceccarelli produces is bigger than most Naples-style pizza, enough for two. The base margherita features the usual puddles of melted cheese against painterly swipes of tomato sauce. But the keystone is still the crust: ebullient, smoky, wonderfully elastic, and tender where it isn't cracker-thin and crisp. Ceccarelli's crust is the benchmark against which all other OC crusts now get to be judged. One of the best ways to experience it is the salsiccia e friarielli--a pizza strewn with crumbles of Italian sausage and Italian rapini. The rapini melts to a bracingly bitter broccoli soup with the crust as the spoon.
Even in the pizza named Fuoco--in which the kitchen piles enough arugula, see-through slices of prosciutto and Parmigiano to make a salad--the crust shines through as though it were a laser beam. If it's a salad you want, get the one with the toasted walnuts and sliced pears, or perhaps the involtini ai sapori, with the arugula and mozzarella bundled inside the prosciutto.
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But stick with the real pizzas for the main course, and not the quattro stagioni, in which they fold the dough into a pinwheel shape after stuffing each section with one of four different fillings. Not only is it hard to share, but it also tastes less like a pizza and more like a calzone crossbred with a Danish. It's best to leave the hybrids alone until it's time for the Nutellamisu, a tiramisù mixed with Nutella and crunchy bits of hazelnut.
It was under the glow of TVs tuned to sports, as I licked my plate of its last bits, that I realized that Fuoco, unlike Mozza and its ilk, is a Neapolitan pizza joint not for the Newport Beach fashionable or the trend-spotting Yelper, but for everyone else. Next to me were flannel-clad Fullerton bros nursing bottles of beer, and next to them was a Chinese group and an Indian family. Ceccarelli knows this audience. Though the menu states the pizza won't be cut because it's traditionally eaten with a knife and a fork in ol' Napoli, each one is served sliced into fourths anyway, without asking.
Still, you shouldn't expect Ceccarelli to ever put pineapple or even pepperoni on his pies. You'd have better luck asking for ketchup on your nigiri at a sushi joint.