I happened to be in a Vegas suburb earlier this year and tasted a pizza that floored me. Perhaps it was because I wasn't expecting it to amount to much. Perhaps the humidity in the desert that afternoon was the optimal condition for the dough. Whatever forces in the universe needed to converge for a pizza to reach perfection, it did that day. The pizza I ate at the Settebello Pizzeria Napoletana of Henderson, Nevada, was one of the best pizzas of my life.
Its qualities were far from mystical, though. Rather, it was grounded in all the required but elusive hallmarks of a good Neapolitan-style pie. Blackened char freckled the crust, but, most important, an inherent elastic chewiness existed in the dough, a real bounce that played together in balance with the crispness and tenderness. It didn't matter that the place was smaller than most Subways, that the walls were scuffed, or that it's one of those "authentic" joints that denies you pepperoni--Settebello, as far as I was concerned, earned its lauds from local critics and the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana seal, certification from a group of Italian pizzaiolos that are the equivalent of the National Institute of Standards and Technology for pizzas.
So it was with that experience in mind that I looked forward to the opening of a Settebello in Newport Coast. But the second I stepped into the dining room, it became immediately clear this Settebello was going to be different. First, the restaurant--which shares a parking lot with Javier's in Crystal Cove--is more Vegas-y than that Henderson store. A projector beamed black-and-white movies no one actually watched onto one wall, and another wall had wine bottles inserted into wooden slots as though someone were in the middle of a gigantic game of Connect Four.
Apart from just being huge, the room is actually not a room, but rather a hybrid of an outdoor courtyard and a lounge fitted with leather sofas. There are live trees planted into the concrete, and in the middle of the restaurant, you see a permanent hole in the roof that opens up to the sky as though it were a car with its sunroof stuck open.
"I wasn't here when it rained last week," our server remarked, looking up at the void in the ceiling, "but I heard it was interesting."
The second thing that's different is the menu. While the original had a laser focus on salads and pizza, Newport Beach's Settebello also offered antipasti such as bacon-wrapped dates. The appetizer of crispy polenta bites with ricotta--blandness on top of blandness--should be skipped for the crostinis, particularly the one with the anchovies. But it's probably advisable to forgo the appetizers entirely and just get on with the pizzas.
If you must have a salad, the option with the wad of arugula and goat cheese swaddled in prosciutto as a sort of inverse burrito is the best. While the version I had in Henderson balanced the arugula's bitterness with the balsamic's sweetness and the meat and cheese's saltiness, the arugula dominated this one.
But it's in the pizzas that Newport's Settebello diverged the most. I tried the "The Settebello," also the one I had at Henderson, which came with sausage and mushrooms. At first, it looked the same, identical down to the charred freckles. But I realized after the first bite it was as far from the original as the distance it takes to get to Vegas. There was a lot of elasticity in the dough, but it wasn't balanced with tenderness or crispness. And the wetness of the toppings (which was fine back in Henderson) seemed to just compound the crust's Wrigley-gum-chewiness.
Why was there such a disparity? It was clear the man who coddled the doughy discs, then slid them into a dome oven crackling with the heat and smoke of burning logs, was careful to twirl the pies mid-bake to get it just right. The whole process lasted not more than a minute, but it might as well have been an eternity.
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On the next visit, I ordered the most expensive pie, "The Market Special," which is topped with thick, fatty pork lardons, a variety of squash and fried sage. This time, the crust was better--the chewiness was answered by more crispness, even if it still lacked the tenderness I remembered. But it was a good pizza, great even. Perfection, however, was again as elusive as Lady Luck.
When our waitress came around and asked how we found out about the place, I told her we'd been to the original. She commented how small that store was. "Yes, I like this space much better," I said.
I kept mum on what I thought of the pizza.
Settebello Pizzeria Napoletana, 7864 E. Coast Hwy., Newport Coast, (949) 715-2072; settebello.net. Open Sun.-Thurs., noon-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., noon-11:30 p.m. Dinner for two, $40-$60, food only. Full bar.