The wood-burning oven at Ciccio in Yountville

Fired Up: Ciccio’s Quest For The Perfect Pizza Crust

“I’m so over food that needs a pedigree. We’re just going to cook,” says Polly Lappetitio, the Chef at Frank Altamura’s (of Altamura Winery) soon-to-open pizzeria, Ciccio, in Yountville. Having spent 13 years at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone restaurant (the last five as Executive Chef) we can understand her need to simplify.

For now she is focusing on just one thing: her pizza crust. Using a wood-burning, Italian-imported Mugnaini oven, which has been hand-laid in a mosaic of Italian tiles procured in New York City (that’s some pedigree), has been hot for weeks now, but she’s not quite satisfied yet with the results.

“I don’t think we’re trying to say there is a perfect crust,” says Altamura. “Just like there is no perfect red wine. It’s all so personal. What we’re trying to do crust wise — which is really important — is not have it emulate something or have a certain style.” (Similarly, Altamura doesn’t make a Bordeaux blend “because we’re not in Bordeaux.”) “The crust will have to be able to stand on its own — texturally and flavor wise,” continues Altamura. “But it will also have to be able to carry the structure of the ingredients, which will be simple” (likely not more than three, with no substitutions).

Tasked with carrying out Altamura’s vision, Lappetito spent months eating every pizza she could find from the Bay Area to Sicily (now that is what we call “research”). She describes her perfect crust as having “a little crunch, a little chew and a lot of flavor: If you’ve finished the toppings but you want to keep eating the crust, that’s a sign that it’s doing everything it should do.” (Her favorite crust, by the way, was at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix.)

How does she plan to get her crust to do everything it should do? Well, for starters, it’s going to take time (Bianco has been making their crust for 15 years, but don’t worry, we’re pretty sure Ciccio won’t take quite that long to open — in fact, Altamura says 4-6 weeks) and “lots of little steps along the way.” The oven, for starters, has to be the right temperature, something she is having fun with. Open fire cooking may seem like the latest faux-rustic dining trend, but for Lappetito, it’s really about getting back to the basics. “That’s just what people did: they cooked on the fire because that is what they had.” They also used ingredients from their farm — because that is what they had.

 

In this case, the farm is Altamura’s ranch in Wooden Valley, just northeast of Napa, which is where most of the meat and vegetables — and not incidentally, much of the wine — will come from. In reflecting on the explosive freshness of California Italian cuisine (compared to say, New York, which relies heavily on canned tomatoes and the like) Lappetito attributes it to both a long growing season and the proximity to and diversity of the region’s produce. “We can get fresh eggplant five months a year here,” she says.

The pizzas, and they are designed so that each person gets their own, will obviously be the star of the oft-changing menu and given the amount of care and attention to detail that goes into each one, eating them demands a certain kind of mindfulness. “People who are willing to really sit down and relax for a minute and actually try to taste the pizza will understand what we’re trying to do here,” says Altamura. And because winemaking is what he knows best, he compares making pizza to making wine — balancing aromatics, flavors and textures — and enjoying the perfect pie should be no different than enjoying a fine glass of wine. “It’s pizza in its simplest form, but it’s much more than that.”

The ingredients are layered so that each one shines at a different time, while not overpowering one another. The aromatics of the fresh oregano, for example, may hit you first, but when you bite into the crust, you may get a whiff of the char, while simultaneously experiencing the creamy texture of the mozzarella (Lappetito is still on the search for the just the right mozzarella, which she describes as “tasting like summer.”

The rest of the menu will also be composed of whatever comes in that day — fresh salad from the farm, maybe a fish special, maybe a goat. The criteria for the wine list is simple: All local, affordable wines that, says Frank “are good wines and go with the food.” They also have a liquor license, which allows them to offer classic after-dinner drinks like Amaro and grappa and a few pre-war Italian cocktails the crew is working on.

“I think it will just be a fun place to be,” says Lappetito. “We want you to feel like you’re coming to our home.” From where I sat in Ciccio, settled in one of the orange booths in front of a lineup of mismatched glasses, looking into the open kitchen where the brightly-tiled oven is heating up for the day, I would say they are off to a wonderful start.