For a trend to reach Harrisonburg, Virginia, it must be very trendy. Neapolitan pizza has become very trendy.
Bella Luna opened in Harrisonburg in 2013 and serves perfectly adequate and reliably good Neapolitan-style pizza. The “style” is an important caveat because Bella Luna doesn’t make true Neapolitan pizza.
The restaurant’s oven isn’t hot enough. Its mozzarella isn’t from a water buffalo. The tomatoes probably aren’t grown on Mount Vesuvius, but that’s just an inference based on Bella Luna’s preference toward local produce.
And that’s cool. That’s what’s good about it, because Neapolitan pizza is as boring as it’s delicious, and it’s not always delicious. Just eat at the soullessly bland Stuzzi in Richmond — but make sure it’s on Monday when a pizza is $2 if you order a drink and sit at the bar.
There are laws, set forth by pizzaiolos of the Verace Pizza Napoletana, that regulate what constitutes Neapolitan pizza. They account for ingredients, preparation, oven type, oven temperature, and even circumference. Pizzerias can apply for accreditation, and if ruled worthy, get a badge to stick in their window.
A VPN blessing isn’t imperative — there’s no agent making audits at gunpoint — but conforming to a style means conforming to a taste. It leaves little to no space for improv. Eat enough sanctioned or semi-sanction Neapolitan pizza and it will start to feel the same.
Washington D.C.’s 2 Amy’s is a notable offender. It’s too surgical. Better options are Etto in D.C., Kesté and Motorino in New York, and Una Pizza Napoletana, formerly of New York and now of San Francisco.
Its proprietor, Anthony Mangieri, as pure a Neapolitan-pizza votary as moves on this earth, helped start the Neapolitan-pizza trend in the United States when he opened the original Una Pizza Napoletana in 2004.
This summer, Arianna’s in Richmond introduced a Neapolitan-style pizza, cooked, as the VPN demands, in a wood-fired oven. How closely Arianna’s keeps to the other rules is unclear, but its Neapolitan offering is good. It’s just not as good as Arianna’s base pie, which is neither innovative nor trendy, and those are the best things about it.
Bella Luna, even with its harder Neapolitan lean, is the same way. It appropriates styles, performs necessary alchemy, and creates something new. Again, not especially innovative — certainly more trendy that Arianna’s standard pie — but it’s a pizza that’s all Bella Luna’s.
When Bella Luna opened, I asked a staff member if the pizza would be straight Neapolitan or of a style less inflexible. They described it as spiritually Neapolitan.
This staff member also said the restaurant considered Harrisonburg’s somewhat insular tastes when planning the menu — a good decision. Wood Grill Buffet is grazed to capacity nightly, and an Olive Garden, if built, could set off the Rapture.
Still, Bella Luna’s one-size-for-all pies (11ish inches), somewhat wet middles (a Neapolitan-pizza staple), and limited toppings (most of which are preset) frustrate uninitiated diners. For them, the absolutism of true Neapolitan pizza would be too much. For me, it’s just dull.