It took a while for artisan pizzas to arrive in Hawaii, but it was love at first bite when the first Neapolitan pies reached our shores about a decade ago.
BRICK FIRE TAVERN
16 N. Hotel St.
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays
Cost: About $30 to $40 for two without drinks
Ratings compare similar restaurants:
**** – Excellent
*** – Very good
** – Average
* – Below average
These pizzas are made with powder-fine “0” or “00” wheat flour, which results in a voluptuous, chewy crust. Restaurateurs who took time to master this crust wouldn’t deign to place lesser or superfluous ingredients upon it, so its natural companions were mellow San Marzano tomato sauce, basil, mozzarella and select meat and produce that passed muster with the chefs, all at a time when “fresh, local and sustainable” were becoming buzzwords.
The latest to follow in this tradition is Brick Fire Tavern, which recently opened on Hotel Street near Nuuanu Avenue. Owners Matthew Resich and Inthira Marks saved up for a year, then quit their jobs to spend six weeks training and interning with famed Naples pizza chef Enzo Coccia, who grew up helping his father in the family’s pizzeria.
Coccia became a crusader for a Traditional Speciality Guaranteed certification process for Neapolitan pizza, a designation that has been officially recognized by the European Union since 2009. Part of his mission was to help teach his craft — traditionally passed from father to son — to chefs around the world to assure the quality of Neapolitan pizza everywhere.
Resich and Marks said studying with the Italian chefs at Coccia’s school wasn’t easy.
“If you spread your sauce counterclockwise instead of clockwise, you’d think it was a coup d’etat or something,” said Resich, who had long dreamed of owning a pizzeria and was trying to settle on a style when he fell in love with Neapolitan pizzas in San Francisco and at V Lounge. He spent the next few years researching the pizzas and schools that taught the craft.
In Italy, “every day was definitely an experience because they take this very personally. I think he got yelled at more than I did,” said Marks, whose background includes working as a trainer at California Pizza Kitchen. “They only knew a few words in English, so they would say, ‘Don’t run, go slow’ or ‘Go fast with the dough.’”
“We had a purpose and knew what we wanted to do when we came back,” said Resich.
Fans of Neapolitan pizzas will get it immediately. Those whose pizza fantasies have been shaped by the excesses of American fast-food operations might need to adjust to Brick Fire Tavern pizzas, which are more likely to whisper than roar.
Pizzas here are a lot more delicate than their ingredient lists would suggest. Italian sausage and soppressata (Italian dry salami) pack a lot less salt, fat and fillers than their American counterparts. The pizzas also come in only one size, 12 inches. I suggest visiting with two or three friends if you want to experience variety.
For balance, the menu opens with seasonal salads and garden- fresh Kamuela tomato and basil soup ($6). The current salad lineup includes a beet “caprese” ($8) and alternative Caesar salad ($8) of kale and tender Manoa butter lettuce, shaved Parmesan and croutons made from leftover pizza dough.
The best starting place for any Neapolitan pizza is the margherita, with its classic combination of mild San Marzano tomato sauce, mozzarella and Romano cheeses, basil and olive oil. It’s a perfect balance, showcasing both toppings and the beautiful crust.
The pepperoni ($15) is not as typical pizza enthusiasts know it. It’s a milder soppressata salami and ham with flat-leaf parsley and, if you wish, a $1.50 add-on swirl of fresh local egg yolk.
Other delicious classics include prosciutto and arugula ($18) and “funghi” ($15), with its mushroom medley topping creamy bechamel sauce with bubbly, oozy mozzarella and fontina.
The restaurant’s custom Italian- built, wood-fire brick oven cooks a pizza in 90 seconds at 900 degrees, using a combination of dense ironwood for a steady, intense heat and kiawe wood for flavor. Instagrammers note: The owners recommend digging in within 10 minutes of delivery to the table to enjoy the pizza at its best. Wait too long and the crispness dissipates, the center softens and becomes limp. American commercial crusts have evolved to avoid this, but what’s lost in translation is nuance and character.
Resich said that the idea of cooking up fresh food is embedded into Italian society and that he misses the daily walk home, picking up fresh market items en route. That translates here into Brick Fire Tavern’s sourcing from local farms and making its mozzarella in-house.
In line with the Italian philosophy of using the best local ingredients, the “Modern” pizzas showcase what’s available here.
The Real Hawaiian pizza ($18) features papaya-kalo puree, kalua pork, luau leaf and a Kamuela lomi tomato and watercress salad. An Apple a Day ($18) is a sweet combination of Fuji apple slices, caramelized mango-habanero onion jam, arugula and Gorgonzola, and Da Shrimp Truck ($19) beckons with its combination of bechamel, shrimp and roasted garlic, but it wasn’t garlicky enough for me. The shrimp is plain and placed separately from small mounds of garlic. That’s part of the balancing act. They don’t want to smack you over the head with the intensity we’ve come to expect. There is another way.
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.