First Look: Atwood's Pizza Cafe
Post Pizza War reflections at the new Midtown eatery
Let’s start in 2009. That’s the year Varasano’s Pizzeria opened in Buckhead, launching the Pizza Wars. Owner Jeff Varasano used an ingenious marketing plan. For months before opening, he hosted private pizza parties in his home, magically preparing Neapolitan pies in his electric oven. Invitations were coveted. Soon, a foodie cult developed, basically guaranteeing a smash opening of the restaurant. We’re talking national mania.
But there was a problem: The pizzas made in the restaurant, subjected to broader criticism and made in greater quantity, just weren’t that good. For months, nobody would admit it. It was a perfect lesson in the blindness to which foodies and critics are prey in their hunt for novelty and a place for fellowship. Then the cult rightfully moved to Antico Pizza. Then everywhere. Most recently, Inman Park’s O4W became the cult’s ritual space, mainly because of its Jersey-style “Grandma” pie. Alas, it has moved to Duluth. No word yet on whether the cult is carpooling there.
Now, we have another boutique pizzeria in Midtown, Atwoods Pizza Café (817 W. Peachtree St., 404-748-9577, atwoodspizza.com). It’s located on the ground floor of the ancient Biltmore Hotel, which was recently acquired by Georgia Tech. I like the place a lot, not so much because the pies are extraordinary. It’s inexpensive. The ambiance is cool – almost subterranean – with brick walls, a few community tables, and a young, funny staff that befits the stream of Tech students strolling from Technology Square across the street.
The dense number of apartments adjoining the Biltmore and the techy whizzes that populate the hotel itself, turned into an office building some years ago, must have motivated veteran restaurant owners Rob Caswick, Jeff Newsham, Dave Pazienza, and Billy Streck to branch out. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served here every day of the week. There is one problem, though. The limited seating inside has forced me onto the small sidewalk patio during both my visits. Mercifully, it was before the God of Global Warming turned our entire city into something like the 700-degree Pavesi ovens inside Atwoods.
All right, what about the pizza? I’ve sampled seven of the café’s 11 composed pies, available in 8-inch at lunchtime and 12-inch at dinner. Most are red but four are white. All of the pies share a characteristic that many will find compelling. Although they are Neapolitan-inspired, they do not have the characteristic almost gooey center. Instead, the thin pies have a firm, sometimes crispy crust. Yes, they have the proper “char” — a word that became obsessively used during the Pizza Wars.
Ordinarily, I prefer pies without meat, but my favorite red one here so far is the Festival, a slightly piquant and sweet combo of peppadew peppers, sweet fennel sausage, fior di latte mozzarella, oregano, and Romano cheese. My greatest disappointment, alas, has been the Margherita, the usual test of pizzerias. It was too thick, topped with an apparent blend of incomprehensible cheeses, garlic confit, and three basil leaves.
My least favorite was the white Tartufo, a riff on a classic topped with shaved truffles. Of course, we did not expect those pricey delicacies and the menu said mushrooms and truffle oil would substitute. That’s not terribly unusual, but the pizza was virtually suffocated by sliced button mushrooms. No. If you’re not going to use truffles, use better ‘shrooms, like shiitakes or maitakes. My favorite white was the Zucca with roasted butternut squash, kale, caramelized onion, pancetta, fior di latte mozzarella, and a judicious shot of rosemary oil.
Every other pizza on the menu was worthy of ordering, including the red Sho Me Your Roni, the only pie topped with two meats, fennel sausage and pepperoni. You do have the option of building your own pizza or adding ingredients to the composed ones.
Six sandwiches are also available, ranging from fried chicken to a classic muffuletta that surprised me with its authenticity. (Of course, NOLA fugitives will not agree.) Sides come with each sandwich. Avoid the meh side of couscous-quinoa salad. There are better tossed salads. I’ve also tried the chicken soup. It’s got a dense broth, hunks of flavorful chicken, some kale, and perhaps too little salt. I have not tried breakfast — mainly sandwiches made with cheese, eggs, and meat — but the bread pudding-French toast with maple-bourbon syrup and toasted pecans keeps calling me. Finally, desserts — mainly house-made, homey cookies and other pastries — are on display up front.
The verdict? It’s not perfect, but you won’t spend much more than $12 on a better-than-average pie ($8 at lunch). The Pizza Wars are over, folks, and it’s time to rescue your brain from hype and charred crust. Get out there and look around.