We will remember 2015 as the year that new Italian restaurants dominated the restaurant landscape in Austin. Joining the wave of about a dozen new restaurants were more than a half-dozen places dedicated to pizza. You can’t build a dining scene on pizza alone, but you won’t get any complaints from this former denizen of Italy about widening pizza options. Pizza became so ubiquitous this year that I received an email about yet another new spot opening even as I was typing this introductory paragraph. OK, even I may ready to say “basta!”
While I haven’t had time to hit every new spot in town this year, I did visit the following four very different pizza-centric restaurants and recommend them all for various reasons.
Burn Pizza + Bar
The People: Owner Bridget Dunlap started her Austin nightlife empire on Rainey Street, and her collection of bars and restaurants expanded east in recent years. The owner of Lustre Pearl and Bar 96 brought in chef Tim Lane to helm the kitchen at this restaurant-bar hybrid in East Austin.
The Place: Party in the front and business in the back, this brick-walled warehouse-style space features a bar in the front and open kitchen and dining room in the back. The spare space, dotted with cheesy light fixtures resembling flames, is bifurcated by a garish mural of a grape-chomping wolf surrounded by flames and crumbling Corinthian columns. I’m not sure if the design is intended to reference the mythic she-wolf that birthed Romulus and Remus, but it looks like the graphic you’d find on an Ed Hardy-designed bowling shirt for a gentleman’s club.
The Pizza: Speaking of Rome, chef Lane creates the best Roman-style pizzas I’ve eaten in Austin. Puffed and crunchy on the edge, paper thin through the middle and pooled with creamy clouds of hand-pulled mozzarella, the textures, flavors and aromas of the classic Margherita ($10) reminded me of the pizzas served at the trattorias in my former neighborhood in the Eternal City. It didn’t surprise me to learn that Lane worked as sous chef at Glass Hostaria in Rome, just a few blocks from my old apartment in Trastevere.
What you’re drinking: Grab an eight-ounce Thirsty Goat Amber or Hops and Grains Zoe for only $3, or explore the list of eight craft cocktails, including the bittersweet, herbaceous Toronto ($8), made with rye, simple syrup and Fernet Branca.
What else? The pizzas have roots in Rome, but the menu stretches north to Tuscany with a wild boar papparadelle ($18), the housemade egg pasta impressing with its tensile strength. Double brown stout put a toasty finish on a deconstructed birra-mi-su with moist ladyfingers ($8) for dessert.
Ideal for: Watching a game at the bar with a spicy-salami-piqued Devil pizza ($13) and a glass of Nebbiolo.
1802 E. Sixth St. 512-609-8174, burnatx.com.
Lucky’s Puccias & Pizzeria
The people: I miss the art, architecture and food of Italy, but I really miss the people. That’s part of why I love Lucky’s, run by colorful Taranto, Italy, native Luciano Sibilla. A blend of boastful blue-collar bluster and self-effacing modesty, Sibilla strung lights outside his restaurant while we discussed his iconic Austin neighbor, Donn’s Depot. He’d been there once, but not to drink. He was working. Whatever that means. The friendly Sibilla, known as Lucky, opened a small sandwich trailer outside the Tiniest Bar in Texas in 2010 and expanded westward to a brick-and-mortar restaurant serving the trailer’s namesake sandwiches (puccias) and pizzas at the beginning of this year.
The place: The restaurant sits at the bottom of a mixed-use development on West Sixth Street, adding a few small decorative touches (scan the mural of Italy next the chalkboard menu to find Sibilla’s hometown situated on the inside heel of the boot) to set it apart from a generic sandwich shop.
The pizza: Mottled hills of wood-fire-kissed mozzarella ring the inside of the toasty crust on a crudo and arugula pizza ($8.50 for personal size), the prosciutto and greens a tangle of easy pull and peppery snap. A similar cascade of arugula blankets cherry tomatoes sweet as candy snared in the gooey mixture of mozzarella and ricotta on a Primavera pizza ($9 for personal size) that holds firm beneath its cream weight.
What you’re drinking: Lucky’s Puccias offers a serviceable beer and wine list, but I’ll take my taste of Italy in the form of a San Pellegrino aranciata.
What else? The wood-fired puccia bread glows behind a soft dusting of flour like sunshine on a cloudy day. Sibilla stuffs the fluffy round sandwich rolls indigenous to his Taranto with cured Italian meats but also gets creative with combinations like pastrami with chipotle aioili, peppers and four cheese for a sandwich with as much personality as its creator.
Ideal for: Grabbing a pizza on the patio at lunch and eavesdropping on Lucky and his affable employee Paolo.
1611 W. Fifth St. #175. 512-291-3531, luckyspuccias.com.
The people: A James Beard Award-winning chef opened a restaurant in Austin, and it seems hardly anyone noticed. Maybe it’s because it’s pizza; maybe because it’s off the Drag; or maybe because it’s connected to Urban Outfitters. Whatever the reason, people need to recognize Marc Vetri is here. The Philadelphia chef recently sold much of his restaurant empire to the lifestyle brand, but the Austin location of the restaurant he opened two years ago in Philly has the chef’s fingerprints on it.
The place: You can access the restaurant from San Antonio Street or through the courtyard of Urban Outfitters’ recently redeveloped 24 Twenty complex. There are about a dozen seats at two bars inside the shoebox space with a wood-fired oven, but most of the seating is outdoors.
The pizza: The leopard-spotted Neapolitan pies ooze with a soft center that belies a firm, crackling crust. Fennel gets its licorice licks in on a sausage pizza sweetened with San Marzano tomatoes and laced with fennel fronds and fanned slices of the roasted bulb ($16). Rosemary’s garden breath weaves itself through a tapestry of oozing mozzarella and olive oil on the vegetarian Maurizio ($12). In addition to its round pies and group-pleasing long rectangular pizzas (the al metro style are 30 inches by 8 inches), Pizzeria Vetri serves special slices of the day, square cut with puffed, honeycombed centers, like one with speck and roasted Brussels sprouts beneath a shower of melting cheese.
What you’re drinking: More than two dozen bottles and cans of beer from California to Italy, along with a white and red wine on tap.
What else? The restaurant’s trademark Rotolo ($4.50) is a concentric spiral of pizza dough stuffed with milky ricotta and mortadella and drizzled with pistachio pesto. It looks like a cinnamon roll, tastes like pizza, and makes for some delicious cognitive dissonance.
Ideal for: One of the best meals you’ll get within Frisbee-tossing distance of the University of Texas.
2421 San Antonio St. 737-222-5294, pizzeriavetri.com.
The people: Owner Shalou Barth is a relative newcomer to the restaurant world, but her kitchen is led by a 15-year restaurant veteran, CT Turgeon, whose résumé includes the late Haddignton’s and 42 Grams in Chicago.
The place: Barth’s husband, Eric Barth, of A Parallel Architecture, designed a handsome and simple space with the familiar modern Austin touches of wood, steel and exposed bulbs, but the thatched ceiling and smart sound-dampening materials make it feel and sound like something different. Sit at the bar to get a nice view of the bustling open kitchen and avoid the potential awkwardness of the communal seating that makes up about half the dining room.
The pizza: Bubbled, charred and supple through the center, the pizzas here cook hot and fast. A pizza topped with bourbon-smoked pepper and Rudolph-red sweet and sour Sweety Drop peppers from Peru speaks to the thoughtfulness of the kitchen ($12). A pie with homemade lamb sausage, dill and roasted fennel ($16) proves the kitchen can think in entrée terms and deliver in pizza form.
What you’re drinking: Anything from crisp and effervescent (Szigeti Grüner Veltliner Brut) to rich and voluptuous (the seasonal Choco-leche stout from Austin Beerworks).
What else? A bright and creamy dressing of lemon and ground cashew enlivens a kale salad ($9) given crunchy, sweet and tart complexity from millet, golden raisins and pickled peach. It may look like a melting snowman, but a mound of mascarpone and salted caramel gelato shrouded in marshmallow and ringed with roasted peanuts is a winner.
Ideal for: Date night. Or, if you’ve got a group of five or more, you can make a reservation.
2406-D Manor Road. 512-524-1922, unitdpizzeria.com.