In a city where hot ‘n’ ready pizzas and stuffed-crust specials have dominated the landscape, il Lazzarone feels a lot like an oasis.
Not only does the weeks-old restaurant boast the kind of style you’d expect to see on the streets of Manhattan, South Austin or maybe even Kansas City’s Westport district, but it’s also serving up authentic Neapolitan pizza.
And when they say “authentic,” the folks at il Lazzarone absolutely mean it.
“We follow only Neapolitan law,” owner Erik Borger says with a smile.
No, seriously. Its wood-fired pizza bible is the law book issued by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (VPN), and it vehemently sticks to every nitpicking rule.
“It has to be 00 flour, it has to be made in an Italian spiral mixer, it has to be cooked in 60 to 90 seconds, you have to put the sauce on clockwise,” Mr. Borger explains. “It’s extremely detailed — down to the source of the mozzarella and the source of the tomatoes, which come from the base of Mount Vesuvius.”
Mr. Borger expects il Lazzarone to become a VPN member in the coming months. If so, his eatery would be the first in Missouri to earn the VPN’s certification. In fact, il Lazzarone would become only the second restaurant in the six-state area of Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Arkansas with the distinction (Dante Pizzeria Napoletana in Omaha, Neb., is the other).
But Mr. Borger isn’t simply abiding by the Neapolitan commandments to achieve a status boost. He believes in his soul that the men who created pizza in Naples, Italy, in the 17th century were doing things the right way. While pizza chains continue to push bigger, better deals, Mr. Borger’s keeping his focus on simple pies, fresh organic ingredients and a cooking approach that’s totally unique to the area.
“It’s authentic. That’s what we want to protect. That’s what we want to showcase,” he says. “Will everybody love it? Probably not. There are a lot of people who love the meat lovers and the really thick crust, and I respect all pizza. It’s just that this is what I love, and I want to share it because there’s nowhere else you can get it.”
Mr. Borger’s love for Neapolitan pizza dates back to his New York childhood. He was born and raised in the Big Apple before moving with his parents to St. Joseph at the age of 14. He graduated from Central High School in 2000 but soon went back to New York when he was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America.
As he moved to Kansas City and eventually back to St. Joseph in the years that followed, he would distance himself from the restaurant industry, but he’d never give up on perfecting various wood-fired pizza recipes (or investing in various ovens to do it). Much like devoted barbecue pit masters, he’d wake up in the wee hours of the morning to fire up the 6,000-pound oven in his backyard and make authentic pizzas for his family and friends.
“That’s a lot of wood just to feed a few people,” Mr. Borger laughs. “But I felt it was something that needed to be shared.”
As more and more people raved about his handiwork, Mr. Borger’s yearning to treat folks to Neapolitan pizza became an undeniable obsession. He wanted more than anything to open the first truly authentic Neapolitan pizza joint in Missouri. His chef pals and foodie friends in Kansas City anxiously awaited for his fledgling restaurant’s arrival.
He spurned them for St. Joseph.
“I know a lot of prominent people in Kansas City who are mad that I opened here instead of in Kansas City,” Mr. Borger says. “I had a contract for a place in River Market, but I decided that St. Joe needs this place more than Kansas City does.”
“St. Joe is a lot different than it was 10 years ago,” he adds. “I really feel between the pulse of the city and the angst of Downtown that we’re ready. St. Joe’s ready to receive great culinary experiences just like any other city would get to receive. Why deprive people of that?”
Mr. Borger found the perfect place for his dream eatery last year when he toured the former building for Acme Radiator Repair. He loved the modern exterior and glazed brick walls. The decor matched the spirit he wanted the restaurant to convey.
It even fit the name he had come up with. “Il Lazzarone” refers to a class of people who lived in Naples in the 1600s. Rather than chase financial aspirations, he describes the Lazzarone as people who only worked long enough each day to afford a bottle of wine and a pizza. They cherished life and they certainly cherished their pizza.
He liked the idea of unifying all kinds of people in admiration of quality food.
“In Naples, to this day, a pizza place is the only place where a rich man will sit next to a poor man for a meal. It’s a universal language that brings the masses together,” he says.
Of course, everyone needs a language teacher. That’s now the aim of Mr. Borger and his staff, who attempt to make customers feel comfortable with the Italian menu and walk them through the discrepancies of the Neapolitan style on a daily basis.
“It’s imperative for us to educate them about why we’re special and what makes our restaurant so different,” says il Lazzarone waiter William Seay.
It all starts with the oven. That sterling white oven that rests in the middle of the restaurant just so happens to be an Acunto Mario, which was made by an insanely particular fifth-generation oven builder on the main street of Naples from hand-laid brick crafted from the soils of Italy’s Campania region. In other words, it’s the finest wood-fired oven money can buy.
It’s also the only Acunto Mario you’ll find in the United States.
The process of getting it from Naples to St. Joseph took nearly half a year and upwards of $30,000. Mr. Borger had to hire a rigging company and get it shipped to the U.S. by boat (after it was already held up for a month at customs at an Italian port during a government holiday). It landed in Galveston, Texas. Then it took a trip by railroad and another trip by semi-truck before it finally showed up on Frederick Avenue. Mr. Borger personally forklifted the oven into the restaurant.
As he sees it, the whole ordeal was more than worth it. The oven reaches an astounding 1,200 degrees, and although Neapolitan pizzas cook for 60 to 90 seconds, he’s pulled a few out in shorter amounts of time.
In his opinion, the Acunto Mario produces the best Neapolitan pizzas possible. Add in all-organic ingredients, 00-grade flour, fresh mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes grown in the historical region outside of Naples and sausage and other meats from the Local Pig charcuterie in Kansas City and it’s hard to disagree with his assessment.
That said, the greatness of the product will be judged by its audience, and that audience is still adjusting to the Neapolitan style.
Because the pizzas at il Lazzarone — like all authentic Neapolitan pizzas — cook for such a short amount of time at such a high temperature, the crust will be charred to varying degrees and the center will have a slightly “soupy” texture. While many feel this cooking method adds to the depth of the flavor, not everyone agrees. Likewise, not every customer has been thrilled that the pizza has come to their table unsliced. You’ll never find a slice of pizza in Naples, Mr. Borger explains. He recommends eating his pizzas with a fork and knife, starting from the center and working outward toward the crust.
Mr. Borger and the staff are patient and understanding with the detractors. They know their pizza’s not for everyone.
“One in 100 (complain). And probably 10 to 15 out of every 100 say this is the best food they’ve ever eaten in their life, which is such a great compliment,” Mr. Borger says.
“If you’re going to have a no-compromise attitude toward Neapolitan law and how the pizza’s made, you’re going to have people who just don’t get it,” Mr. Seay adds. “There are people who are going to look at it, and it’s not going to be the pizza that they thought pizza was. And there’s really nothing else we can do for them. I’ve said to certain tables that look a little leery: ‘It’s a new experience. Open yourself to a new taste.’ And those that are ready for it don’t know what hit ’em.”
Il Lazzarone aims to open St. Joseph to more than one new experience. Not only does the menu boast a small variety of antipastas and salads (which include arugula and kale options), but it offers a selection of craft beers that are hard to find anywhere else in the city. As an added bonus, they pair very well with the pizzas. The Uovo pizza with farm-fresh egg and salami, for example, goes well with dark beers like Rogue’s Hazelnut Brown Nectar, Left Hand’s Milk Stout or Buffalo Sweat by Tallgrass Brewing Co.
You’ll also find craft beers by 4 Hands and Deschutes breweries on the menu, as well as Birra Moretti, which is imported from Italy. Mr. Borger says workers from the restaurant make multiple trips a week to the Kansas City area to pick up these more obscure beers.
“We drive hundreds of miles a week to get the beer. They will not distribute here, so we’ve decided to bridge that gap to serve good beer,” he says. “We want to serve things that people can’t get here.”
He plans on adding fresh pour-over coffee and a Naples-based dessert pizza (with Nutella, fruits and powdered sugar) to the menu in the future, but not much else. He wouldn’t want the unique eatery to spread itself too thin.
“If you have a large menu, it’s not fresh,” he explains.
While reviews of the food have been largely positive and reviews of the service have been mixed — which is natural during the first few weeks of business — the place has been packed for every lunch and dinner service. In fact, il Lazzarone was so busy that the eatery actually ran out of dough on a couple of occasions. As Mr. Seay explains it, that’s not a bad problem to have.
“Heck, on a Thursday, we ran out of dough at the height of business,” he says. “I know that we disappointed the folks who were on the street about to come in, but that means they’ll have to come back.”
Il Lazzarone’s very early success could be an indicator that tastes in St. Joseph are changing, and that this town — while not nearly as big as Kansas City — can appreciate and support creative fine culinary establishments. Il Lazzarone may feel like an oasis now, but Mr. Borger, Mr. Seay and many other Joetowners don’t think it should be.
“This restaurant, hopefully, will be on the forefront of more like it,” Mr. Seay says. “The more good food there is, the better St. Joseph’s reputation is.”
Because the staff carefully preps before both the lunch and dinner services, il Lazzarone is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. on Mondays through Thursdays. The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. It is closed on Sundays. For more information about the eatery, call 273-0582 or visit www.illazzarone.org.