Pizza Lupo partner and pizzaiolo Max Balliet stands in his dining room wondering aloud whether to obtain the Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN) certification for his young Butchertown pizzeria. After all, he claims to serve Neapolitan pizza, so what better way to assure guests they’re getting a version that’s as close to that served in Naples, Italy, right?
Wrong. The effort is monumental and of dubious worth. An 11-page list of requirements drawn up by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (the Association of True Neapolitan Pizza) says a restaurant can’t claim it serves the real deal unless it follows its legalistic standards. (Suffering from insomnia? Read it and you’ll be zonked in minutes.)
“It’s a really difficult thing to achieve, and we’ve moved pretty far through the process of doing it,” says Balliet. “But we’ve gotten to a point that we’re thinking, ‘This isn’t worth it. We already make great pizza.’”
He’s telling the truth: It’s not worth it; and Pizza Lupo does make fantastic pizza.
(The only reason I can weigh in on VPN certification is because after years of interviewing dozens of America’s best pizza makers to ask why they don’t sign on. Nearly all called VPN an Italian money grab that wasn’t worth the headache. So, like Balliet, guys like Chris Bianco (Pizzeria Bianco), Tony Gemignani (Tony’s Pizza Napoletana) Ron Molinaro (il Pizzaiolo) and countless others continue making unspeakably good pizza while ignoring AVPN.)
“The standard, at some point, becomes a distraction to just making great pizza,” Balliet says. “And that’s not why I do this.”
Balliet makes pizza masterfully. Along with MozzaPi, Pizza Lupo’s pies are the finest renditions of Neapolitan pizza in Louisville. (Balliet even credits MozzaPi co-owner Tom Edwards with offering advice on dough and technique.) The crust is feather light, nearly paper thin, yeasty-aromatic and flavorfully scarred (“leoparded” is how it’s described in the industry) by the black marks of the wood-fired oven’s intense heat. A Neapolitan-style dough’s moisture content is so high and its gluten network stretched so thin that the rapid exodus of steam from within keeps it microscopically (and mostly) floating above the 900 F pizza stone. The black spots are the only evidence that it’s lingered there for about 90 seconds, which is all the time it takes to bake one of these 12-inch beauties. The leoparded crust edges develop when the pizza maker moves the pie near the wood fire or up into the oven’s dome, where even the Devil won’t hang.
I and two colleagues shared the Margherita ($12, tomato, basil, fresh mozzarella) and the Sting Like a Bee ($15, tomato, fresh mozzarella, soppressata and spiced local honey) for lunch, and both were fabulous. Their sizes are ideal for sharing with another, but were one’s stomach fully on “E,” it would be possible to consume one solo.
We also had fried smelts and a gorgonzola and pear salad, which were excellent. (Thank God for fried smelts served here and at Monnik Beer Co. These tiny, whole fried fish are a terrific addition to local menus.)
It was a midday working meal, so no cocktails were had, so the bar (according to friends and some lavish social media praise) will be revisited later. Great place to get an Amaro flight if that interests you.
The space itself is remarkably balanced between modern-refurbished and appropriately industrial for the neighborhood; plus, it’s completely casual. Located just north of Mellwood Ave. on Frankfort Ave., it’s ideally done for the century-plus old building in which it’s housed. It’s also a welcome addition to Butchertown, whose restaurant offerings are limited but really good.
Lunch hours are Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner hours, Tuesday-Saturday, 5-11 p.m. Call 409-8440 for more info.