click to enlarge food_bartlettimage-pizzeria_roberti-6594.jpg

Photo by Rob Bartlett

Pizzeria Roberti’s dough, made after an in-house ferment, lends their pies an upper crust 

Culture club

Joe Roberti, the exceedingly genial proprietor of Pizzeria Roberti, learned the art of pizza making as a child – first, just playing around with dough at the pizzeria neighboring his mom's Hallmark store in Queens; then, at the wizened age of 9, selling his first pizza to an actual paying customer. In the years since, Roberti has graduated from Le Cordon Bleu here in Orlando, was part of the opening team at Epcot's Via Napoli, and worked with mentor and Top Chef champ Hung Hyunh at New York City's Catch before opening up a catch of his own right here on Chickasaw Trail.

As far as Big Apple-style pizza is concerned, Roberti fashions some of the best 16-inch rounds in the city, and it all starts with (what else?) the dough. The original culture is dated April 13 of this year and Roberti uses it to make his pizza dough following a two- or three-day ferment. What it all amounts to is an exemplary crust – thin and bubbly; crisp yet yielding; and, above all, flavorful. Even my dining comrade, a self-professed pizza snob and purist who's taken the Verace Pizza Napoletana training course in Naples, Italy, was duly impressed by the textural excellence of the thin crust.

And it wasn't put to waste either, not with the quality toppings and Grande cheeses. Roberti even takes time from pizzaiolo duties to make fresh mozzarella three times a week, white blobs of which are meticulously positioned around the margherita pizza ($16). The basil comes festively shredded, and the sauce – not too bright, not too sweet – is a study in balance. No doubt Roberti takes a serious and methodical approach to pizza-making without compromising any of pizza's comforting aspects. His braised short rib pizza ($18) graced with caramelized onion, garlic and imported fontina cheese could very well be the pizzeria's signature pie, but the same could be said about, oh, the specialty foie gras pizza ($18 for 12-inch), or the chicken marsala pizza ($18) or the meat-packed "carnivore" ($18). Even substantial slices of Sicilian pizza ($6) won us over, so the point, dear reader, is that you won't go wrong with any of the pizzas here.

Garlic knots ($6), shaped using a combination of high gluten and whole wheat flour, weren't quite on the level of local favorite Pizza Bruno. "Too dense" was the consensus, but they were plenty garlicky enough. Dense all-beef meatballs ($7) split opinions – some quite liked the smaller orbs of fine grind, while others preferred a heftier polpe with a looser mix of meat. But all agreed that the flavor – the pricks of basil and parsley intermittent, yet needed – was faultless.

Outstanding rice balls ($6) damn near upstaged the pizza with their delicate texture. These weren't the bulbous, crackly-shelled globules with oozy centers you often see at places like this but, rather, softer with an almost mashed potato-like filling. There's a little bit of meat stuffed inside as well.

So-so cannoli ($6) aren't made in house, but warm pizza-dough zeppole ($6) – served in a paper bag – are. I couldn't get enough of the wee powdery buggers, not until I slouched back in my seat, my schnozz dusted in white sugar snow, my face snarling from excess like a pre-diabetic Tony Montana. "What are we gonna do now?" asked my comrades. "Do?" I said, staring intensely into their faces. "We're gonna eat that dough for breakfast."

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