It has been the kind of sizzling summer that reduces everything and everyone to a stupor, except, apparently, local cooks. Maybe the sizzling start of our global warming has motivated all the chefs; why leave the kitchen if it's hotter outside? In any case, the current spurt of new kitchens continues with the debut of Naples 15, taking over the downtown space once occupied by Cafe Porta Alba (before it moved to Hilldale) and, more recently, Las Cazuelas.
That space is expanded. There are floor tiles painted with dancing Neopolitan peasants, wall murals and a brick wood-burning oven. All this feels friendly and endearing and so does the service, exemplified by our patient, efficient and relentlessly cheerful waiter.
The sweet vibe infuses the restaurant's best dishes too. These are its pizzas, models of purist Neopolitan authenticity (you know the drill: the wood-burning oven, the San Marzano tomatoes, the extra-virgin olive oil, et al.). Naples 15 produces instant classics. They're good enough to rank among the best pizzas in town, at least judging from the pies we sampled. Partly what makes them so memorable is the close-to-perfect crust - not too thin, not too thick, and puffed up in big pillowy, slightly blistered waves along the edges. The toppings help too. Our sausage pizza, crowned with mozzarella, peppers, that extra-virgin olive oil (a bit too much) and master greens was lifted by the quality of the rich, dense sausage. And the ricotta and pancetta on our second pie made for a seamless duet.
And there you have it. Let's end on a high note. Or else take the risk and order off the second menu because in fact there are two here: the pizza menu and then the more ambitious or at least longer general menu of lots of appetizers and pastas and entrees. And too many of these don't come close to matching the success of those pizzas. The problem is a kind of old-school version of old-school cooking. This isn't so much the retro approach to cuisine that brings dishes back to their artisanal past. Instead Naples 15 seems to be producing a lot of oddly heavy, cloying, slapdash Italo-Ameican cooking that the best contemporary chefs are trying to pare down, clean up and elevate in a more soulful, coherent way.
The kitchen seems dedicated and sincere, but something goes wrong in the execution. Take the day's special of octopus spaghetti, a big plate of octopus so rubbery the seafood was close to impenetrable, beached beside pasta that wasn't so much al dente as undercooked, and in spots simply uncooked (i.e. crunchy). A gnocchi served in a bubbling black pot of San Marzano tomato sauce resembled a misguided Neopolitan fondue, bobbing with gnocchi that mostly ended up sinking. Instead of light, airy dumplings, this gnocchi was pretty much just gummy.
A veal Amalfi was better, the veal tender, though obscured by too much of that angry red acidic tomato sauce that turned a potentially elegant dish inelegant. It came paired with more undercooked pasta. Chicken salvatore will be appreciated by diners who still like their bird buried under lots of very rich, thick cream sauce, some bacon, smoked mozzarella, truffle oil (hard to distinguish) and sage. The pasta with white beans and prosciutto was saved by a bed of white beans, which are almost always fail-safe.
But then any new restaurant needs tweaking. And sometimes rethinking. And lots of editing. Whichever cook does end up attempting that edit might want to consider focusing on what the kitchen does supremely well. Because becoming potentially one of the best pizzerias in Madison is no small feat, and something to be proud of in itself.