If the dystopian strip mall has an emblem, it's the stainless steel, double-deck, gas-burning pizza oven. Generating a barely balmy 450 degrees, it reheats hours-old slices by the million and sends them out into parking lots, to be eaten as we search for our maddeningly inconspicuous Subarus.
Nationwide, the artisanal pizza revolution is dismantling this apparatus of despair. The revolution became local in 2010, when Cary's Bella Mia stoked its 900-degree coal-burning oven and began serving its rigorously minimalist Neapolitan pies.
Now Pizzeria Toro takes to the barricades in downtown Durham.
A study in contemporary casual, Toro features a buzzing bar, butcher-block tables, and a prep area so exposed that diners try to cut through it on the way to the bathroom. A room-length communal counter is meant to question suburban privacies. The room's demotic touches allow Gen Y job-holders—there are some, apparently—to split the difference between "keeping it real" and urban sophistication.
Dominating the far end of the room is a hulking blue-gray steel cylinder with a rectangular slit that glows burnt-orange. It looks like a decapitated Cylon retooled as a jack-o'-lantern, which is highly reassuring: A pizza oven should have a vague aura of menacing power. A monitor shows red digits reading a healthy 705 degrees. The rear wall is stacked floor to ceiling with logs awaiting immolation.
Not long ago I proclaimed an axiom of pizza craft: "Crust should resemble the best bread. It should be charred, blistered, elaborately ridden with the strands and holes of its gluten development. It should look as if struck by lightning."
More than any pizzeria in the Triangle—possibly including Bella Mia—Toro approximates this ideal. The medium-thin crust is chewy, crisp and light. Avoiding the false extremes of the cracker and the bagel, it presents just enough gluten development to claim cousinage with a perfectly executed ciabatta. Its char-mottled underside lets you know that it's been to hell and back, while its smoky fragrance tells the tale. This is my favorite—dare I say the very best?—crust in the Triangle.
The menu includes 10 pizzas—four reds and six whites—that undergo minor shifts in topping from day to day. The margherita (crushed San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, basil) is a flawless display of basic prowess: superlative crust, impeccable ingredients.
Beyond the margherita and perhaps the pizza of crimini mushroom with fiore di latte (cow's milk mozzarella), I find myself on trickier ground. Full disclosure requires me to out myself as a pizza minimalist. A sound crust requires a smattering of this, a bit of that—nothing more. A pizza crust should not be used to plate a salad.
By contrast, Toro adheres to a flamboyant maximalism. Its pizzas juggle as many as a dozen flavors and aim for bravura interplay. The most aggressive of these is the white pizza layered with Yukon gold potato slices, bagna cauda (i.e., garlic and anchovy purée), pecorino and rosemary. This pizza is intensely but appealingly salty, in the movie theater-popcorn sense. The first piece is a treat, but the salivary glands begin to rebel halfway through the second. This is a pizza of the highest quality, but one to be shared and chased with a very blond beer.
Only slightly more subdued is the white pizza of house-made venison sausage, caramelized onion and rustico (according to Murray's Cheese in New York, "a pasteurized sheep's milk cheese from Rome"). Performing a tightrope dance atop this tug of war between the slightly gamey sausage and the nearly candied onion, Toro sprinkles the surface with basil, chive, rosemary and whole peppercorns, the latter representing a chutzpah at which one can only smile.
The red pizza with house-made fennel sausage, roasted peppers and provolone is another instance of what may be a bridge too far: The roasted peppers include poblanos. It says something that the robust red pizza with spicy lamb meatballs, rapini, red pepper flakes and cacio di Roma (a semi-firm sheep's milk cheese) is a model of relative restraint.
My chief quibble is procedural. The chef adds cheeses toward the end of the cooking process in an attempt to preserve their textures and flavors. The cheese is arrested in the first stages of its deliquescence and arrives warmed but not fully melted. A cheese-monger would undoubtedly approve, but I'm a fierce partisan of the blistered and bubbling, the kind of guy who likes to scrape the browned and admittedly leathery mozzarella from the sides of the lasagna pan. I pass no judgment. We must discover our own preferences when it comes to cheese chemistry.
Amid this jeweler-loupe scrutiny of the pizza, we should not overlook the vivid antipasti and desserts. The staples of the shifting antipasti menu are burrata—a fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream—with charred tomato and crisp-fried basil; thinly sliced ox tongue with green sauce and deep-fried capers; and roasted beets with pistachios, shaved ricotta salata, caramelized anchovy and fresh mint. The beet salad could lose the anchovy and mint, but otherwise these antipasti are lessons in crisp and lucid conception. Deep-fried capers are a particular revelation. We should be popping these like peanuts.
The menu includes only three desserts, but each deserves a taste, meaning that instead of trying to shake that third wheel, you had better invite him or her to join you. The gianduja budino with hazelnuts and sea salt is a soft and subtle caramel pudding atop a platelet of fudge. The Dutch babies (i.e., petite popovers) with poached quince and clabber are homey and refined.
Cannoli ranks with panna cotta and crème brûlée as a perennial bore of the dessert menu, but Toro's version illustrates why cannoli conquered the world in the first place. An orange-infused mixture of ricotta and mascarpone fills perfectly crisp shells. What sets these cannoli apart is that they are nearly unsweetened, allowing the cheese—clearly not Polly-O—to reveal its subtle milky-grassy notes. Having spent the better part of a decade in the Italian-food arcadia of New Haven, Conn., I've eaten my share of cannoli. These rival the best.
Toro, in sum, has craft, flair and zest for experiment, making its evolution worth tracking and its menu worth exhausting. It also has a subtle instinct for urban zeitgeist. This is a restaurant meant to be post-ironic, knowing but not pretentious, stylish in a way you're not supposed to notice. Call it pizza for the Jonathan Lethem set.