You probably thought the secret to a successful pizza was the crust, or the sauce, or the cheese, or the quality of the toppings. Nope, not according to the people tossing the pies at Via Napoli, the new Neapolitan restaurant in the Italy pavilion at Walt Disney Worl’ds Epcot. To them, it’s all in the water. The water that is mixed with the flour to make the dough to make the crust has to have the right minerality, the same minerality as the water that flows in Naples.
So Florida water just won’t do (no, not even water from Naples, Florida). But it also hasn’t been necessary to tanker water from Italy to achieve the desired level of minerals. Pennsylvania, yes; Naples, no. According to Charlie Restivo, executive chef for the new restaurant, there is a water source in the Keystone state that is key to producing the perfect pie. The flour is important, too, of course, and that is also imported (that does come from Naples), and the mozzarella is handmade.
The pizzas are hand-stretched, too, with the occasional showy throw over the head. Then sauced, topped and tossed into an oven. But not just any oven. Of course not -- if they’re going to import water ti mix with the imported flour, you wouldn’t expect them to use a domestic oven, would you? The ovens here -- three of them -- are Italian-made wood-burning infernos that burn at over 800 degrees, hot enough to cook a pie in about two minutes. The opening of each oven is the mouth of a massive sculptured face, and each is named after one of Italy’s active volcanos: Etna, Vesuvio and Stromboli (yes, there’s a volcano called Stromboli, and no, there isn’t one named Calzone; just those three).
Is it all worth it? Well, the pizza here is very good. The crust is thin -- thinner than most Americans expect in a pizza -- but has a good elasticity. And the mozzarella is sufficiently stringy. The sauce doesn’t dominate but has the right tang. I especially liked the prosciutto and melon pizza, which also had fontina and pecorino cheese. But don’t expect this to be a life-altering pizza experience. I wouldn’t recommend it as a destination dinner spot, even without the $82 admission to Epcot, which might be the world’s costliest restaurant cover charge.
But it does offer and new and enjoyable dining experience if you’re visiting the park anyway. Via Napoli is owned and operated by the Patina Restaurant Group, which also has Tutto Italia next door. VN is a more casual dining experience, at least in theory. When both restaurants are filled with rambunctious park-goers, it might be difficult to delineate one from the other.
Via Napoli, with its high, pitched ceiling is especially prone to high-pitched squealing. That child who really, really wants to go home who sounds like he’s seated right behind you may in fact be across the room. Throw in the open kitchen and a lot of hard surfaces and I think you get the picture: it’s a noisy restaurant.
Pizza isn’t the only thing on the menu. In fact, there are some very nice alternatives, especially among the antipasti. I liked the fritto misto, particulary the calamari, which had a delicate breading deftly fried, or fritto’d, as the case may be. Fried mozzarella, too, and long slices of eggplant. Arancini, a fritter-sized rice ball with cheese and meat inside, was a bit dry.
I loved the eggplant parmesan that was served as an appetizer, firm slices of the vegetable topped with piquant red sauce and gooey mozzarella. Candele, which resembled a Greek pastitsio without the bechamel topping, had bits of meatball and sausage ragu. Good, but not too exciting.
For dessert there were ricotta cheese fritters, which didn’t seem much different from beignets, and something called coppa de brutti ma buoni, which means ugly but good: a sundae with amarena cherries. I didn’t find it the least bit ugly, but it was definitely good.
As with the water, flour and ovens, the servers here are imported, too, though some of the accents I heard would suggest they came from Little Italy in Manhattan. Little matter -- they were all friendly and accommodating.
Via Napoli is open daily for lunch and dinner. Reservations can be made through Disney’s dine line, 407-939-3463. Here’s a link to its page on Disney’s Web site.