I feel bad for the Little Caesars next to Pizzeria Faulisi. Same product, same claims—like making dough in-house. Yet minivans still compete for Caesars' parking spots, only to scurry in the other direction, toward charred pies and pillowy gnocchi and radish martinis. But who's surprised?
This has been a long time coming, anyway.
In the past five years, the Triangle has welcomed a wave of independent pizzerias. It feels great, like the ocean in July. In 2012, we welcomed Pizzeria Toro. One year later, Trophy Brewing Company. One year after that, Pompieri Pizza. In 2016, Pizzeria Mercato and Pie Pushers. And, in March, Pizzeria Faulisi.
Some spots, like Toro and Mercato, champion old-school Italian cuisine with bilingual menus boasting ingredients like fior di latte and prosciutto di parma. Others, like Trophy and Pie Pushers, embrace a more American approach, with a slew of choose-your-own toppings and house specialties, like Trophy's "Daredevil" pizza with ghost pepper salami, jalapeños, and sriracha.
Playful names aside, both approaches take themselves seriously—and they've made us take pizza seriously, too. If competition breeds excellence, it also breeds higher expectations.
By the time Pizzeria Faulisi opened in downtown Cary, the owners were well aware of this.
The restaurant's owners are the husband-and-wife team Zach and Amber Faulisi. Collectively, they have worked in the restaurant industry—from New York City to Miami—for three decades. Amber, notably, served as sous chef for Andrew Carmellini at Locanda Verde, and Zach, most recently, was the executive chef at Andrea Reusing's latest venture, The Durham.
Which is to say, they know what they're doing.
And they know what they're not doing. In an interview with The News & Observer last summer, Zach noted, "After working for different sized operations, big operations, we just want to keep it simple."
Where have I heard that before? Right: the Instagram account of New York's Lilia Ristorante (or, should I say, @lilianewyork). Most of the posts, from rigatoni with red sauce to linguine with clams, read "#keepit simple," which is exactly the approach that earned owner and chef Missy Robbins three stars in The New York Times.
Keep it simple is the foundation of Italian food and, ironically, one of the trickiest styles to pull off. Because the more you know, the more you want to show. Imagine a writer who consistently utilizes bombastic diction and pleonastic prose. It's not so much impressive as it is exhausting. The catch (of course there's a catch) is that the less you show, the less room there is to hide.
Pizzeria Faulisi doesn't worry about hiding.
From the moment you walk in, you can see every table and chair, the "La Famiglia" neon sign and family photos on the wall, the bar and open kitchen, with two flour-dusted cooks slinging pizza dough and, behind them, the glowing, 700-plus-degree wood-burning oven, imported from Naples.
If you are wondering what to order at Faulisi, try anything that comes out of this oven. The petite menu includes a few antipasti, some pizzas, and two desserts. Save room for the tiramisu. Or don't save room and eat it anyway.
The antipasti of the moment are giardiniera, salad, and gnocchi. The last are "limited quantity," so opt for an earlier dinner and snag some while you can. These little dumplings nestle in bubbly tomato sauce topped with salty pecorino and fresh herbs, arriving in a flame-blackened baking dish.
The pizza also shows off some bruises and burns, and this char is crucial. It emboldens the already distinct, deeply flavored crust, made with Caputo flour from Italy and locally milled flour from Boulted Bread. It is Neapolitan in nature, about a foot in diameter, thin in the center, with a puffy, airy crust.
Less than ten house combinations are available with add-ons. Most are simple, like soppressata, tomato, mozzarella, and Asiago, or shiitakes, red onions, mozzarella, and mascarpone (my favorite). If you want to get wild, go with the "Red, White, and Blue" with sour cherries, mozzarella, and blue cheese. It tastes as funky-good as it sounds, with cherry bomb peppers to keep the richness in check.
If anything, the pizzas arrive at the table too hot, which is, I suppose, a testament to the kitchen and a challenge to one's self control. Tear off a slice too soon and it will wilt like basil in a heat wave, dripping onto your plate, arm, or dress. Try to pace yourself with some red wine and you'll be better off.
Or pace yourself with a calzone, one of those football-sized things that inevitably wanders past you once or twice during your meal. Think "fajita effect" in full force. Filled with ricotta and lemony kale, it faints at the touch of a knife, falling from round to flat, and into a giant grilled cheese.
On Sundays, Faulisi runs brunch specials, like a "Green Eggs and Ham" pizza, with prosciutto and kale and, of all things, pistachio pancakes. It sounds out of place for a top-notch pizzeria, until you remember that neon "La Famiglia" sign and your own Sundays with parents at the stove and pancakes in the skillet. Then it all starts to make sense. I remember my mom used to flip matzo brei, high, almost to the ceiling. It was a badass skill. But mostly she just wanted to make me laugh. This familial space, between craft and comfort, is where the Faulisis have found a way to stand out.