A convenient truth: Great Naples-style pizza is closer than you think
If MacArthur gave out a genius award for pizza-making, Jeff Varasano could be on the short list. At his namesake pizzeria in South Buckhead, Varasano combines the passion of an Italian nonna with the calculated restraint of a software engineer (his former occupation). He’s been wowing guests for more than a decade with his Neapolitan-style thin-crust pies.
On a recent night, my companion and I sipped Camparis at the elegant bar as we waited for a table and soaked in the intoxicating scents of Italy—oregano, garlic, yeasty dough—and admired the exquisite Alphonse Mucha Dance mural that covers one entire wall. Moments later, we were summoned by the host and led toward a seat in the rear, near the pizza oven. Varasano’s has a railroad apartment feel to it, and as you move from front to back, you can’t miss the numerous framed articles about Varasano, his pizza exploits and accolades that adorn the walls. (These are fun and informative reads if you’re inclined.) Moments later, we were nestled in our comfy banquette, noses deep in menus, a spectacular view of Peachtree Road out the soaring windows before us.
We were craving something substantial after our cocktails, and Varasano’s had just the thing: Nana’s meatballs, simmering in slow-cooked San Marzano tomato sauce and served with homemade sourdough bread. No other spot in town has mastered tomato sauce like Varasano’s. It’s tart-sweet and poppy red, perfectly complementing all-beef meatballs that have the ethereal fork-tenderness of a perfect matzah ball.
We had no sooner mopped up the last bit of sauce—no wasting here!—when more bread and sauce arrived in the form of a pizza. An imperfect 14-inch round, the margherita di bufala is pizza perfection, a product of Jeff Varasano’s years of study and practice. A charry, dappled crust, a thin layer of concentrated sauce, islands of milky bufala mozzarella and fresh basil leaves make for a mouthful that checks every box: crunchy, creamy, piquant, herby. It’s both humble and formidable; not a pie you’ll soon forget.
Can you believe we ordered another one? Of course you can; as we like to say, when in Rome… But this time, we strayed from the classics, opting instead for a veggie pizza. It arrived with the same unspeakably delicious blistered crust and piled high with vibrantly colored veg: shimmering broccolini, red peppers, roasted eggplant and mushrooms, all enhanced with melty bits of fontal, a European, semi-firm cow’s milk cheese. This pizza is a gift to veggie worshippers everywhere— so good, you don’t even miss the San Marzano tomato sauce.
Dessert items are simple and straightforward: cannoli, tiramisu and the like. Perhaps the most interesting item is the dessert pizza made with dates, fontina, walnuts, rosemary and honey. At the last minute, we decided to go with the Italian doughnuts served with fresh raspberry coulis. The four scone-shaped sweet rolls were sugar-dusted and crisp from the fryer. We agreed, though, that the dough was a bit too close in flavor and texture to other bread items to thoroughly enjoy.
Our next visit was a take-out meal, and we were determined to give other menu items a fair shake. I will tell you, it takes colossal willpower not to order pizza at Varasano’s. The caprese salad seemed a good place to start. A mainstay on Italian menus, the caprese’s success depends entirely on the quality of a few simple ingredients: tomatoes, mozzarella, olive oil and basil leaves. With its thick beefsteak tomato disks layered with snow white mozzarella, preternaturally green basil and pungent, uber-fresh olive oil, Varasano’s version triumphs, evoking memories of favorite meals on the isle of Capri. Still lingering in the antipasti section, we decided to give Varasano’s spinach salad a try. The mound of bright, crisp leaves was nicely dressed up with a mellow cherryscented balsamic vinaigrette, sweet gorgonzola and a generous toss of candied pecans.
The take-out server sold us on the penne alla vodka with chicken, a portion big enough for three. We loved the housemade pasta in a creamy, Parmigiano-studded pink sauce with thick strips of chicken. Still, we couldn’t help but note that the pasta was a little past al dente, robbing us of that first lovely, resistant bite. Thankfully, that was not the case with our second pasta, farfalle with shrimp and lemon cream sauce.
Fresh crustacean paired with lemon cream is a marriage long ordained by the food gods, and here the fusion of cream and lemon is deeply satisfying, the sauce’s consistency balanced and not cloying, the pasta al dente. All the colors of the Italian flag show up—silky white sauce, green herb flecks and glistening pink-fleshed shrimp—just one more nod to Mr. Varasano’s culinary north star. In our postprandial bliss, we marveled over the fact that—despite the pandemic’s devastating impact on Atlanta restaurants—Varasano’s still managed to deliver a top-quality dining experience.
Varasano’s is decidedly Italian (some would say Italian-American), more like a trattoria than upscale ristorante, so don’t expect chops or seafood on the menu. But if you’re after pizza that has been labored over and perfected by a master pizzaiolo, then this is the place for you. It’s rare that people in the food world love one thing so much that they dedicate their lives to it. Sure, that may be a bit dramatic, but I defy anyone to take a bite of one of Varasano’s pies and tell me it hasn’t made your pizza eating experience utterly unforgettable.
2171 Peachtree Road, Unit 100, Atlanta 30309
Prices: antipasti: $5.95 – $14.95; pasta: $16.95 – $18.95; pizza: $15.95 – $20.95 (for additional toppings $1.50 – $5.00); sweets: $3.95 – $8.95.
Recommended: Caprese salad, spinach salad, meatballs with housemade bread, margherita di bufala pizza, Nana’s pizza, veggie pizza, penne alla vodka with chicken, farfalle with shrimp in lemon cream sauce, Italian doughnuts.
Bottom line: Jeff Varasano has more than done his due diligence here, knocking out exceptional Neapolitan-style pizza pies and other Italian specialties. Also on the menu are craft and classic beers, and a decent but limited wine list.
PHOTOS: Sara Hanna
Food, beauty and interiors writer at Simply Buckhead. Linguist, teacher, chef, parent.