Il Dolce Has Mastered the Sweet Art and Science of Pizza Making

How Sweet It Is
If you know pizza, you’ll know that Il Dolce offers some of the tastiest and most authentic pies around

Who doesn’t love pizza? Some studies report that 93 percent of Americans eat it at least once a month. No surprise, then, that even the most casual of pizza-eaters knows that not all pies are created equal. I’m sure you’ve seen the recent Domino’s TV ad that featured a focus group of customers who had nothing good to say about its product. The company’s not-so-tacit admission that their pizza does, indeed, suck seems to acknowledge that Americans know the difference.

And we do. It’s the reason a table at LA’s Mozza is nigh-impossible to snag. And it’s the reason why a recent Chowhound thread on Il Dolce—a new artisanal pizzeria in Costa Mesa—started out as a review but quickly became an enlightened academic discussion into the nuanced minutiae of pizza science.

Among the points the posters pondered: microbubbles? Good. They bloom to bigger voids in the finished crust. Sugar to speed up fermentation? Bad. In fact, all shortcuts are, such as flattening the dough by machine. Only by the gentle coaxing of human hands should a proper pizza be stretched. If someone in Italy were reading that thread, they’d weep with pride. But ultimately, every pie we eat here is derivative of the hallowed Neapolitan original—pizza that, by its constitution, has a scant roll call of toppings, born mostly of tradition and technique.

The owners of Il Dolce Pizzeria, a handsome Argentine couple who look like they could retire any day now if not for their passion, come pretty darned close. Husband Roberto Bignes holds a certificate from the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, an Italian group of pizza makers that keeps track of this sort of thing. Bignes has also worked with Wolfgang Puck (that’s him in a framed picture, arm-in-arm with the gourmet-pizza mogul).

Now on his own at this modest square of a restaurant kitty-corner from Triangle Square, he seems determined to fine-tune his pies toward the Neapolitan ideal. As recently as last week, he decided to supplement his gas-powered oven with almond wood. The logs can now be seen smoldering near the back of his baking vessel. Also, his mozzarella is house-made. His olive oil is premium. And most important, when you bite into his crust, it crackles with the prickly sound of a million tiny molecular bonds breaking.

In the center of it lies the flat valley of the pie. Halfway toward the perimeter’s edge, the noble bump of the crust begins, lifted by the buoyancy of its air bubbles and blistered by the radiant heat.

And on his asparago pizza, a trifecta of cheeses (fontina, mozzarella, Parmesan) glazes the surface, as sleek as if it had been Zamboni’d and richly buttery. The rest—asparagus, sprinkles of crumbled pancetta and a fried egg with the yolk just barely warmed—become distractions from cheese-pizza bliss.

A barbecue-chicken pizza—an homage to Puck himself and a rebuke of his copycats—bucks Neapolitan tradition with a drizzle of perfectly formulated sauce that’s tangy by design. Its toppings of chicken, red onion and cilantro are all, of course, embraced within the diameter of that mother crust.

Bignes’ baking skills are also in evidence with the ciabatta, whose fluffy, chewy interior crumb has cavernous holes pock-marking its webby matrix of dough. The potential of the bread becomes fully realized after being sliced and lightly toasted for the bruschetta.

Pasta dishes are also lovingly done. A lightly spiced pumpkin puree stuffs the carefully crimped pockets of ravioli. It tastes like Thanksgiving all over again. The lasagnas billow steam when the carefully browned masterpiece is brought out on the square plate it’s baked on. Each portion served hides a generous supply of ground beef under the pasta sheets—a reminder that Argentineans are in the kitchen.

This brings me to the bisteca, a lengthy marinated skirt steak curled to a fetal ball and seared to a tender brownness. Spackles of oily-green chimichurri amplify its beefy, red-meat chew.

And lest I forget, they fry squat-shaped empanadas to a well-bubbled, crunchy shell similar to a giant wonton. Breaking into it releases a steamy plume and a gush of broth from the chicken or beef filling. This, quite possibly, is the best empanada in OC. It’s so good, in fact, that perhaps someday it will become the benchmark by which to judge all other empanadas, like the Neapolitan pizza before it.

Il Dolce, 1902 Harbor Blvd., Ste, A, Costa Mesa, (949) 200-9107. Pizzas, $11-$16; pastas and other main dishes, $11-$28. Call for hours. Beer and wine.

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