Cafe Porta Alba closed its doors on North Butler Street last spring, and recently reopened in a slightly larger space, with seating for 58, at Hilldale Shopping Center, across from Sundance Cinemas.
Its centerpiece is a new $12,000 wood-fired brick oven with an arched terra cotta ceiling, the same design as the oven discovered in the ruins of Pompeii.
It was built in Italy by one of the top three makers of Napoletana ovens in the world, and chef-owner Vincenza Pugliese said it’s a major upgrade from the 3,000-pound oven at the old place, which couldn’t be moved because it was cemented to the floor. The oven heats to 900 degrees in 20 minutes and bakes pizza in 90 seconds.
The pizza menu remains the same as before, but four pasta and two gnocchi entrees have been added, as well as a panini selection.
In an era when the virtues of eating locally produced food are ringing in everyone’s ears, Cafe Porta Alba touts its Italian pedigree.
Pugliese comes from a pre-Roman town near Naples, where it’s said pizza was invented, and where his mother made bread and pizza in the family’s wood-fired oven. Tomatoes grown in volcanic soil below Mount Vesuvius and slow-milled grain from Naples for flour are among the imported ingredients used here, though Wisconsin mozzarella made the cut.
Cafe Porta Alba’s pizza has vociferous fans and detractors. Simplicity and the restrained use of toppings is the standard here, appealing to some, and turning off others who want their pizza to bend under the heft of the toppings. I’m squarely on the fan side, while the other half of the pizza I shared went to a disgruntled admirer of whopper toppings.
Its crust, crisp and slightly charred because it’s baked in an inferno, is the star. It’s much like Indian bread straight out of a tandoor. The Alpina pizza ($11) has a clear-tasting walnut puree, enhanced with nutty, buttery Fontina cheese and sliced mushrooms.
The light touch carries over to salads. The bresaola ($8) consists of mixed greens, with thickly shaved Parmesan and four thin slices of bresaola (air-dried tenderloin cured in white wine and rubbed with pickling solution) dressed only in extra-virgin olive oil.
The new pastas include a wonderfully pungent black linguine Puttanesca ($14), featuring pasta dyed with squid ink and a Puttanesca sauce that deftly combines crushed tomatoes, black olives, capers, ground pepper, parsley and olive oil. Despite the assertiveness of those elements, the net effect was excellent and surprisingly subtle.
A delicious ultra-rich entree is gnocchi Gorgonzola ($13) that had perfectly shaped, tender potato dumplings in a heavy four cheese sauce of Gorgonzola, Parmesan, ricotta and mozzarella.
Panini, made from bread just seconds out of the oven, are served with a big thatch of lightly dressed greens. The Alba ($8.50) is two thin, crisp slices of bread filled with small amounts of Parmacotto ham, Asiago cheese and radicchio, and is a contender for the best-ever ham and cheese sandwich.
Desserts include tiramisu, Nutella pizza, sorbets and gelato, as well as chocolate truffle ($4) — which is not a fungi or a candy. In this case, it’s an orb of egg custard made with sweet wine surrounded by chocolate gelato and caramelized hazelnuts and topped with a heavy dusting of cocoa powder; its peak moment comes when the gelato starts to melt slightly. Chocolate lovers should not miss this one.
Among the desserts imported from Italy, which change regularly, is a tart filled with bright yellow lemon curd.
The move to Hilldale seems to have been a wise decision, since the tables in the dining room are usually full during shoppers’ lunch breaks, and by 5:30 p.m. for dinner.
Visiting during off-hours is recommended as one-hour waits on weekend evenings are common, and there’s no bar at which to bide your time. Reservations are accepted only for groups of six or more.
Restaurant: Cafe Porta Alba
Location: 558 N. Midvale Blvd., at Hilldale Shopping Center
Hours: Open daily 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Specialties: Neapolitan pizza
Prices: Salads $5 to $8; antipasti $7 to $14; pizza $8 to $13; panini $8 to $9; pasta $12 to $15; desserts $4 to $8
Noise level: Loud
Credit cards: Accepted
Reservations: Accepted for groups of six or more
Bottom line: The pizza crust versus toppings debate continues at the restaurant's new location at Hilldale, but pasta and gnocchi have been added to the regular menu. Moderate prices and good service; recommended for children and vegetarians