Pie in the Sky

Photo by Matt Rose

Photo by Matt Rose

Artisan pizza became common to American palates when such once-exotic toppings as pineapple, fresh tomatoes, blackened chicken, and artichoke hearts began regularly appearing on menus — along with the expected mushrooms, pepperoni, sausage, and extra cheese. If culinary memory serves, the trend toward more sophisticated pies started sometime in the late ’80s or early ’90s.

Fast-forward to 2013 and you’ve got Pizza Pura, a hip grotto in the south end of Asheville’s River Arts District. This is “foodie” pizza at its top tier. The suite of extra toppings includes house-made fennel-sage sausage, arugula, pancetta lardons (i.e. bits of pork belly), and oak-roasted mushrooms.

Forget the oil slicks of lowborn mozzarella found on typical pies — Pizza Pura covers its round canvases with nothing but the finest cheeses. Among these is an aged parmesan reggiano that’s old enough to attend preschool.

Which prompts a caveat: Think twice before bringing any family member who’s 3 or under to Pizza Pura. On its printed and online menus, the restaurant warns diners that eating here requires a bit of a time investment. Got kids? Get an appetizer. It’s a good suggestion. We dined free of offspring that night, and while plenty of well-behaved children could be seen enjoying their meal, at one table a couple of wee ones were exploring the wonders of the bare cement floor by the time the check arrived.

That’s because Pizza Pura is, intentionally, more an experience than a mere night off from cooking. As is lengthily explained in a menu insert, this is Neapolitan pizza, the three-centuries-old original style: “Any other pizza in the world is a variation of this product,” the text intones.

The 12-inch pies have a supremely delicate, soft crust made of organic flour. Sauce is simply fresh basil, “daily hand-pulled mozzarella,” and fresh tomatoes (for the “red” pizzas).

Pura’s pies are wood-fired in a mosaic-studded oven, covered with the highest-end delicacies, and presented like new babies. This kind of quiet drama takes time.

Staggering their feast, couples around us were ordering bottles from the tight but savvy beer-and-wine list. Diners weren’t craning their necks in impatience or casting about for crackers to silence their growling bellies.

This is a refined pizza crowd. And the place was packed on a Monday night.

The well-bred product is worth the wait. For our red pizza we tried the delightfully named Pimpi (piglet), with san marzano (plum) tomatoes, “fior di latte” mozzarella (i.e. made with regular milk), the above-mentioned 36-month-old parmesan, and black-label prosciutto ham. Arugula was spread over the top in a delicate lattice.

It was exquisite, a light bite that blended the feel of savory with insalata — and really, who needs a side salad when the greens are this fresh?

Our white pizza, the Salsiccia, was way richer, as white pizzas must be. Besides Italian cream on top, so good it tasted illegal, the Salsiccia sported roasted leek, smoked mozzarella, and the homemade sausage. In a fit of adventure, we added garlic shrimp to the party.

The resulting pie was intensely, almost emotionally, flavorful — the kind of sensory fulfillment that makes you wish you were alone in a dark cave, if only for a few minutes: Don’t you dare refill my water when I’m having a private moment with my slice.

The Vegetale — a red pie with smoked red-pepper purée, oak-and-rosemary-roasted Yukon gold potatoes, zucchini, Vidalia onion, and goat cheese — piqued our interest for the next visit. Ditto the unapologetically named Funghi white pizza, graced with sherry mushrooms, truffle oil, and triple-cream brie.

Most of Pizza Pura’s dessert menu is given over to its small-batch gelato, in flavors ranging from pear to tiramisu. But we couldn’t help but order two cannoli, the classic Italian tube pastry filled that night with an “almond joy” confection of creamed coconut, nut bits, and dark chocolate. No words. Just groans of delight.

Befitting the restaurant’s rather celestial name, the food here is heaven. Full stop.

But the vibe needs work. Our server bordered on terse. Attempts have been made to soften the industrial vibe of the gray-painted room, including gauzy cloth draped over the overhead fluorescent glare. It doesn’t work. Two words: mood lighting.

The chairs are cheap and hard, the trendy high ceilings beget a high noise level, our table was way too close to the decidedly working-class kitchen, and Journey on the soundtrack? Mamma mia! That goes with pepperoni, not sopressata.

A little aesthetic re-maneuvering would make it all much cozier. It probably wouldn’t take much. Better lighting would be a promising start.

And speaking of starts, Pizza Pura should consider adding a few more items to its short list of appetizers, although the antipasti does sound like the stuff of dreams. Even some common little activity for kids wouldn’t dropkick the eatery’s oeuvre. Crayons and paper can’t turn this determined foodie enclave into Pizza Hut. Promise.

After all, what is old-world Italy truly all about? La famiglia, naturalmente.

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