PHILADELPHIA, LONG CONSIDERED a pizza wasteland, has proven its appetite for upscale pies by keeping the likes of Marc Vetri’s Osteria and Stephen Starr’s Stella hopping. And now it seems a full-fledged trend toward quality pies is afoot with the opening of Zavino, from chef Steve Gonzales, in the restaurant hot spot now known as Midtown Village. This third oasis keeps our reputation for crappy pizza crumbling, though it’s impossible to avoid comparing Zavino to those who blazed the trail.
[sidebar]The pies here aren’t as fancy as those at Osteria, and the crust lacks the complexity of Stella’s, but the three restaurants are definitely in league. Gonzales spent half a year working with Jim Lahey, New York City’s dough whisperer, at his critical darling of a pizzeria, Co. “Jim taught me a lot about dough, that you have to really pay attention. Dough is different every day,” says Gonzales.
That may be so, but on my visits, the chef’s results were admirably consistent. A thin, fluffy, crisp-bottomed orb supported judiciously applied toppings (to prevent a soggy crust). The sopressata, bedecked with bright pickled onions, shows that with intensely flavored ingredients, a little goes a long way. The polpettini, topped with tender veal meatballs, is another restrained winner.
The gas-fired pizza oven at Zavino gets plenty hot, but it doesn’t impart the smoky wood-fired qualities I adore at Stella and Osteria. And though the dough’s texture is spot-on, its flavor lacks a certain toasty, wheat-kissed depth, a result of the use of a single type of flour, as opposed to the blends employed by those other pizza players. These seem like missed opportunities, but perhaps they allow Gonzales to turn out a terrific $10 margherita. That’s $5 less than Osteria and $3 less than Stella for a pie that’s only fractionally less good.
A more significant area in which Zavino doesn’t quite stack up is atmosphere. While the design is pretty, the place is a sardine can whose tight dimensions can bottleneck the well–meaning servers. The 35 seats aren’t adjoining; they’re interlocking.
After years of living in a pizza desert, it’s a treat to have three options this good to compare and dissect. With the lowest prices and most convenient location of our three top pizza contenders, Zavino is poised to please even if it isn’t the best in its class.