Do you have a friend with hands that look like spatulas? Bring that dude to Cane Rosso. You might need him.
The Dallas-based pizza-centric restaurant from owner Jay Jerrier makes great Neapolitan pizzas that may confound unexpectant diners. While some places throw that description around loosely yet make pizzas with enough body that the ambivalent slices almost stand at attention, if you try and grab a Cane Rosso slice by the crust, all of the toppings are going to end up on the tray or table by the time the soft dough reaches your mouth. Picture the timepieces in Dali’s “Persistence of Memory.”
True Neapolitan pizzas like those at Cane Rosso have a soupy center that either requires a fork and knife or the dexterity of a champion Operation player. If you’re solely a lover of sturdy New York slices or the style of puffed-edge pies with a little chew through the center, keep looking.
The tiled igloo-shaped ovens burn at 900 degrees and turn out 14” pies yielding six slices with bubbled edges that run paper-thin through the center like stretched Play-Doh. The half dozen wood-fired pies I’ve eaten have varied in their char, from those spotted with charcoal-colored blisters to mellow golden rounds almost completely absent any trace of the angry flame. Crusts at Cane Rosso wage only a slight struggle, their pull releasing subtle notes of yeast and salt. But the main flavors come from the myriad toppings that often slide from the slices on a droopy raft of milky, housemade mozzarella.
The gentle sweetness and tempered acidity of San Marzano tomatoes, blended to a Goldilocks-approved consistency lingering between too thick and too watery, serve as the base for more than half of the pizzas, like the Ella ($14), which is topped with cooling mozzarella and basil and the fiery tingle of hot soppressata curled at the edges by the fire.
The mild tomatoes blend in harmony with the wood-fired mushrooms, pliant artichokes, briny olives and the bitter snap of rapini on a fresh vegetable pizza dotted with roasted grape tomatoes that look like the setting Mediterranean sun ($15).
Those same grape tomatoes colored the crowd-pleasing Delia ($16) pizza, awash in sticky, spicy bacon marmalade balanced by peppery arugula and mozzarella. The arugula, spritzed with lemon, showers another of Cane Rosso’s best, a white pie laced with prosciutto and the salty grit of Parmesan and brushed with olive oil’s vegetal glow ($16).
There are more than 20 different Neapolitan pizza creations on the menu at Cane Rosso, and the assortment and minor variations can cause some confusion. The Ella is the same as the Zoli, except the latter has sausage. And the Paulie Gee ($16) also closely resembles the Ella, except it adds the sting of Calabrian chilies and the sweetness of caramelized onions. Almost all the flavor profiles work great, and I appreciate the legwork on the part of the menu creators, but the similarities can turn ordering into a perplexing game of Family Circle. And even with the plethora of choices, one of the best dances of salt, sweet and spice, the Honey Bastard ($16), with its hot soppressata, bacon marmalade and habanero-infused honey, is an unadvertised special.
The restaurant — its Italian name meaning “red dog,” a nod to owner Jerrier’s first red vizsla — is aware of its Dallas roots and what that might connote to Austinites. Jerrier jokingly alluded to Dallasites penchant for bottle service and leased BMWs when he announced the restaurant would be taking over the old white-tiled and toasty brown space in Sunset Valley previously occupied by St. Philip’s Pizza Parlor + Bakeshop, so it’s no surprise that he has mined Austin for some local culinary references. Cane Rosso uses brisket from nearby Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ for the Elena ($20), and while it works on paper, the mix of lean brisket cubes, pepperoni and hot soppressata enlivened by zippy goat cheese and an aggressive jalapeno pesto was overwhelmed by a flood of indistinguishable flavors. The namesake Cane Rosso pie ($16), with its savory sausage and slippery roasted peppers and onions, proved that sometimes it’s best to hew closer to tradition.
The same ovens that deliver those delicate pies also fire honeycombed bread that squeezes a great take on a Cuban sandwich ($12), with sweet shards of pulled roast pork and pale waves of prosciutto cotto piqued by smart Calabrian chili aioli and horseradish pickles, and softer folds of gentle bread wrap the Johnny C ($12), a submarine sandwich alternative featuring a quartet of cured Italian meats enlivened by pickled veggies and balsamic vinegar.
Those cured meats can also be ordered from an appetizer list mostly made up of fried dishes, like a mound of underseasoned and limp calamari ($10). For those insistent on pasta, Cane Rosso has two regular offerings, including a plate of floppy rigatoni in bolognese that warmed with the nostalgia of a microwavable bowl you might have snacked on during your lean, if not lithe, college years.
With such impressive, and very specific, pizzas, the generic appetizers and pasta dishes feel like a distraction, if not a downright undercutting of Cane Rosso’s strengths. The restaurant also competes with itself a little on the dessert end. Jerrier purchased former Austin dessert truck Cow Tipping Creamery and gave it the small space adjacent to Cane Rosso. It’s hard to focus on finishing Cane Rosso’s massive s’mores calzone ($10), all delicious starch and sticky sugar, when you have layered soft serve creations waiting next door. I guess you go home happy either way, just like your friend with the spatula hands.
4715 S. Lamar Blvd. Suite 103. 512-904-0534, canerosso.com
Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Hours: Lunch: Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner: Monday-Saturday, 5-11 p.m. Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Prices: Starters, $5-$16. Salads, $6-$12. Sandwiches, $12. Pasta, $12-$15. Pizza, $11-$20. Desserts, $6-$10.
What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.
The Bottom Line: Cane Rosso has honed their take on Neapolitan pizzas, but some of the other dishes are rough around the edges.
Notes: Ample free parking.