When I heard Bufalina planned to open at 1519 E. Cesar Chavez St. about three months ago, I wondered what design ideas ownership had for the vacant, former auto shop I’d visited during the East Austin Studio Tour.
The answer: Not much. And that’s a good thing.
The Neapolitan pizza place lets its food make the biggest impression. Owner Steven Dilley installed some handsome wooden shelving and added a complementary bar and tables made of Texas walnut, but the walls remain a plaster patchwork, small pieces of art dotting them like during EAST. It’s a modest workman-like vibe that echoes the building’s history.
The biggest design element: a large, white-bricked oven shipped from Naples, Italy. It does most of the work in this small restaurant that seats about 40 people. It looks like an igloo, but it burns like the sun, turning out the best Neapolitan pizza in Austin. (Note: Neapolitan pizza is wetter in the center and puffier around the edges than the thin and crunchy New York-style pizzas you’ll find at places like Home Slice or Little Deli.)
University of Texas graduate Dilley left his job in algorithmic equities trading in New York City several years ago and moved back to Austin. He’d spent years in NYC playing around with pizza-making as a hobby and headed to Naples to observe the masters and refine his technique in preparation for opening his own place.
His studies paid off. The gorgeous pies at Bufalina have an excellent balance of yeast and dough, making for an evenly cooked pie with gentle rise and charred, bubbled edges. The pliant pizzas are slightly chewy and evenly cooked throughout, holding up under the weight of their fresh ingredients. Tables are set with fork and knife, but I had no trouble eating the slices by hand, folding them over into mini calzones.
Creamy pools of melted mozzarella suspended like full moons in crimson tomato sauce top a calabrese pizza ($14), with smoky roasted red peppers and the salty tang of salami crisped at the edges. Bufalina serves cured meat from Iowa’s renowned La Quercia and uses their nduja (a spicy, spreadable pork sausage) in judicious amounts to bring a counter kick to the mild sweetness of caramelized onions on another pie ($14). And, again, those ivory pools of mozzarella. We enjoyed La Quercia’s rich and nutty spallacia (pork shoulder) on a plate balanced with pickled beets and chantilly cream flavored with mustard.
Neither my dining guest nor I are big fans of mushrooms, but even we couldn’t resist the earthy and oily pleasures of the mushroom pie ($14), firm nobs of pan-sautéed crimini mushrooms mellowed by the salt and milk of Parmesan, fontina and mozzarella, with olive oil drizzled across the entire affair ($14).
You might not see the prosciutto picante buried beneath a pile of citrus-tossed bitter arugula and slabs of shaved Parmesan on the fresca pizza ($15), but you can taste its mild red chili pork flavor on the overflowing farm-fresh pie. That startling freshness serves as the hallmark for the handful of starters at Bufalina, as well. They could serve only excellent pizza and call it a night, but they make a towering bibb salad ($8) that looks like a pale Christmas tree, decorated with slivers of bright mint and radish circles and brushed with the snowy down of fresh cream.
The early fall salad ($5) was a dark green tangle of mixed greens enlivened by a chili-spiked vinaigrette and painted with baubles of tart mustard seeds that looked like something you’d find at the Forest Moon of Endor Café. The salad was flavorful but simple, like a deconstructed caprese ($8) with marshmallow cubes of supple homemade mozzarella and the acid and cool of fresh tomatoes and basil.
The only misstep at two dinners was a taleggio pizza ($14) that suffered from overly salty sausage. We actually didn’t order that one, but curiosity and proximity to our table neighbors led us to trade some mushroom slices for sausage slices. We were sitting just inches from the friendly couple (who also gave us some lessons on the history of the Icelandic language in addition to their slices).
Bufalina is a small space, and when it’s busy (which seems to be most of the time), your first seating option may be at one of the communal tables in the center. It’s no problem if you don’t mind the prospect of eavesdropping and the joys of newfound knowledge. But, wallflowers and the secretive beware. The friendly staff does their best to manage the crowds, and the guests seem to handle the wait with good humor, maybe fortified by one of the six local draft beers or a glass of one of the 33 bottles of wine from a heavily French and Italian list.
Or maybe they just know their patience will be rewarded with the best Neapolitan pizza in the city.
1519 E. Cesar Chavez St. 512-524-2523, BufalinaPizza.com
Rating: 9 out of 10
Hours: Wednesday-Sunday, 5:30 to 11:30 p.m.
Prices: Starters, $5-$12; Pizzas, $8-$15
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: Bufalina has separated itself from the Neapolitan pizza-making crowd in Austin, and it’s not really even close.