Cafe Porta Alba
15 N. Butler St., 441-0202
11:30 am-2:30 pm Mon.-Fri., 5-9 pm Mon.-Sat. Closed Sun. Pizzas $9.50-$13. Street and ramp parking. Wheelchair accessible.
Even in an age that isn't big on abstract thought or actual verbal skills, most Americans can still wax lyrical on at least three subjects: their Nano playlist; their blog updates (proof that diaries were once kept locked for a reason); and what constitutes a good pizza. Everyone has their own idea of an ideal pie: a chewy New York pizza, a Pizza Hut wheel of grease, a delicate wisp of a California vegan pie.
I myself can claim two favorite pizzas from a lifetime of pizza-guzzling: the one I had in Rome that came topped with nothing but fresh sweet corn and some cilantro; and almost all the perfect thin-crust, crisp pizzas served at Spiga in London, an Italian family place that sometimes produces a suckling pig pizza that is better than anything you've ever tasted, period.
My most disappointing pizzas, though, probably because I expected so much, were the pies I sampled in Naples, which is considered (according to lots of strenuous historic authority) the home of the pizza. The Neapolitan pies were good, but not the religious experience I expected, maybe because most food that clings to a purist ideal turns out tasting a little robotic and dull.
In any case, now you don't have to go to Naples to experience the real thing. Cafe Porta Alba, which recently opened downtown on Butler Street, bases its reputation on its fidelity to the Neapolitan ideal, and takes the tradition very seriously. In fact, the Cafe's menu ' which reads a little like a manifesto ' asserts, and I'm quoting, that 'Porta Alba [is] a member of the Vera Pizza Napoletana association (VPN), [which] promotes the art of making pizza as it began over 200 years ago.'
Strictly adhering to the VPN standards, the cafe features approved ingredients ' including San Marzano tomatoes cultivated in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, and flour from the world-renowned Caputo mill. And maybe most important, the cafe has replicated the domed, brick, wood-fired oven (the wood is oak) that is the only vessel real Neapolitan pizzerias employ.
That means you can sit at a counter framing the oven, like a pizzeria version of a sushi bar, and watch your personal pizza placed in the oven, by the pizza maker, with a long wooden pallet and pulled out fresh from the flames, though you don't have to. The pies look just as classic and inviting if you get them served at one of the chunky blond wood tables filling the airy cafe (the only false note: the big flat-screen television mounted above the fireplace).
Does the taste live up to the performance and to that sincere fidelity to tradition? A lot of people say it does, and I have friends who already swear by Porta Alba, consider it by far the best pizza in Madison and wouldn't go anywhere else. And in this case I'll defer to those fans, to some extent. The problem is, pizza is a very subjective thing, and my doubts about the cafe's pizza largely come down to a matter of acquired tastes.
I've acquired a taste for very crispy, thin-crust pizzas, and the Alba pizza has a definite chew to it that belies its crusty-looking shape. I also prefer a sweeter tomato base and an understated one, and if I can choose, I always prefer pesto or olive oil to anything but a wispy smear of tomato sauce. The by-the-book Porta Alba tomato sauce, which is true to tradition, tastes flat and one-note to me, and sometimes overwhelms the pizzas' toppings. And not all the toppings are as assertive as you'd hope. The bresaola borders on tasteless, and the four-cheese pizza, the several times I tried it, came out crusted with a sharp, stiff blend of cheeses that didn't sing.
But if you order the right pie, and if your standards are different than mine, this may well be the ultimate pizza. Certainly the margherita ' the classic pie of fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil ' is a standard, and a perfect antidote to all those overdressed, dripping, slop-like pizzas that American pizzerias specialize in.
For more of a mix of flavors, the capricciosa is a knock-out. The busy fall-out of toppings (mushrooms, olives, fresh mozzarella, tomato, parmacotto and artichokes) come strewn sparingly, so that the effect is delicate and understated, and each ingredient has its moment to shine. The margherita con prosciutto is also very good, the prosciutto draped in long, silky sheets on top of the pie, and the mastunicola (pecorino romano, extra-virgin olive oil and basil) probably comes closest to my personal ideal.
My favorite Porta Alba pie, though, is the margherita con salame, topped with thin disks of Genova salami that add the perfect burst of flavor and lift the pure-hearted, traditional pie. It's reason enough to celebrate the cafe, though not the only one. Any local restaurant that shows such a sincere commitment to culinary traditions, and to the best ingredients, deserves its success.