You're forgiven if you've never noticed La Pizzeria. It's folded discreetly away in the back corner of Mt. Pleasant's Northcutt Plaza. If you passed by it on the way to Palmetto Paws or Southern Belles you might think, "oh, just another pizza joint" and keep on walking, and that would be almost understandable — assuming, of course, that the wind was blowing the wrong direction and the aroma of baking pizza dough never reached your nostrils.
But you'd be doing yourself a disservice, for the name La Pizzeria is a glorious understatement. Yes, right behind the front counter is a big pizza oven, and stacks of cardboard boxes are piled high on the shelves beside it, awaiting take-out pies. But La Pizzeria is also a full-service Italian restaurant, complete with a wine list, traditional antipasto and pasta, and a tempting slate of dessert.
The actual offerings are ever-changing; a little purple half-sheet menu touts the specials, which rotate weekly. That list alone has enough tempting options to drive one to distraction. Like the "Triangoli di Pasta Sfoglia" ($12) — three triangles of housemade puff pastry filled with a thin, savory layer of wild mushrooms, zucchini, parmesan, and crispy bits of pancetta. The pastry is brown and flaky, the mushrooms give it a nice body, and the pesto and orange and green oils drizzled on the plate offer a bright accent.
The chicken ravioli ($17) is also noteworthy. The firm, chewy pasta comes coated in a bright green basil-pecan pesto that is sharp but not overwhelming. Tucked inside the ravioli is a creamy mélange of diced chicken, pancetta, and — the perfect crowning note — smoked mozzarella that infuses the whole with its rich flavor.
The fixed menu has plenty of gems too. The Veal Saltimbocca ($22) is most notable for what it's not. I've had it elsewhere drowned in cheese or a thick sauce. La Pizzeria provides a generous portion of veal, two broad medallions, which have a tender but chewy texture balanced by the sharp, salty bite of prosciutto. The white wine reduction sauce accents but doesn't overwhelm.
Unfortunately, the "side of the day" was a jumble of sliced yellow squash and zucchini tossed with a sheet of prosciutto and a bunch of melted cheese, and it came off as a rather disappointing mush. Some simple roasted potatoes would have been much more welcome alongside the savory saltimbocca.
Indeed, La Pizzeria is at its best with simple, un-fussy, classic preparations. The restaurant was the first local customer of "Clammer Dave" Belanger's local clams, which now grace white tablecloths all over downtown. At La Pizzeria, they're used in a simple spaghetti vongole ($19). A big twirl of tender spaghetti is encircled by a dozen sweet, tender clams, their shells opened wide and welcoming. They're dressed in a light sauce of white wine, garlic, parsley, and olive oil — a clean preparation that lets the flavor of the clams really shine through.
A platter of Prosciutto e Mozzarella ("mozzarella and prosciutto," for those who don't speak Italian, $13) is just what a table needs to get things rolling: folds of paper-thin ham arranged around one side of a round white plate, a half-dozen slices of fresh mozzarella around the other, the whole drizzled with bright olive oil and sprinkled with shards of fresh basil and flakes of dried oregano. One could do a lot more with it — fry it or bake it or cover it with sauce — but with good cheese and prosciutto, why would you need to?
I've not yet addressed the restaurant's namesake dish. La Pizzeria's pizza has won a cadre of local disciples, who speak of it glowingly as the best pizza this side of New York or Boston or whatever chilly city they called home before being cast into the cruel pizza-less desert that is the South.
Being a native Carolinian, I probably don't have the credentials to weigh in on this subject, but, for what it's worth, I think it's really tasty pizza. The crust is thin but still taut and chewy, and when you go for one of the more traditional Italian-style pies, the result is a well-balanced combination of crust and toppings. The Margherita, for instance, with its melted fresh mozzarella mottled with tomato sauce and strips of basil, is a definite winner.
You shouldn't forget the desserts, and you probably won't, since they're on tempting display in a tall glass case right at the front door. There's a selection of pre-made treats imported from Italy, like a gelato bomba that fuses half a scoop of chocolate with half of vanilla and coats it in a robe of dark chocolate. There are lovely profiteroles, too, delightful little cream puffs doctored up on the plate with a spritz of whipped cream and a spiral of chocolate syrup.
And I just have to say it: thank goodness that tiramisu has finally made it through both its period of trendiness as well as its inevitable backlash, so now you can order it in peace, without the know-it-alls sneering at your clichéd tastes. La Pizzeria makes theirs in-house with ladyfingers imported from Italy, and it's sweet, creamy, and delicious. Citrus zest is substituted for the more traditional rum or marsala wine and adds a pleasing flavor.
This under-the-radar Mt. Pleasant establishment is the creation of Zaza Nakaidze, a native of Georgia (the one in Asia) and his wife, Laura Zanotti. Nakaidze learned to cook in Italian restaurants in Boston's North End neighborhood, and Zanotti is a native of Milan. Together, they took over the little pizzeria in 2006 and transformed it into a full-on Italian restaurant.
It's a rather eccentric venture, admittedly, blending the highs of an Italian bistro with the informality of a pizza joint. Sodas arrive at the table in 20-ounce plastic bottles, and warm slices of bread come in a little blue plastic tub. At the end of the meal you take your check and pay at the register by the front door. The place opens, inexplicably, at 3:30 in the afternoon.
But the bread in that plastic basket is made fresh in-house from Italian flour. There's a respectable list of Italian wines by the glass and by the bottle (most in that accessible $20 - $30 range). The proprietors have done what they can to overlay a run-of-the-mill storefront with the styling of one of those old, comfortable Boston restaurants. A former "porch" on the right side of the space has been converted into an enclosed dining area, the interior wall painted to resemble old stone blocks adorned with twisting vines and the tall windows hidden behind floor-length white and sienna drapes. In the narrow main part of the restaurant, an ancient-looking pressed tin ceiling adds a hint of noble age. The servers are enthusiastic, friendly, and quite informal, a good match for the setting.
Personally, I find the high-low hybrid very agreeable, even comfortable — a casual, down-to-earth hideaway where you can take the whole family and enjoy a plate of good pasta or a slice of pie with a respectable glass of wine and not get too worked up about anything. And, really, when you get right down to it, how much more does one really need?