Dining With Denise Neil

My first four-star review in seven years: Piatto Neapolitan Pizzeria

Piatto’s Rucola pizza is topped with smoked prosciutto, arugula, grape tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, parmigiano reggiano and olive oil.
Piatto’s Rucola pizza is topped with smoked prosciutto, arugula, grape tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, parmigiano reggiano and olive oil. The Wichita Eagle

I went to Naples once.

I was 19, and the only pizza I knew came from Big Cheese and Godfather’s in Dodge City. Sadly, I was in Naples for only an afternoon, and all these years later, two details remain in my brain: The beach was too rocky, and the pizza was too good to adequately describe to my chain-pizza-eating friends back home.

A foodie was born.

I’d never stopped to consider, until recently, why that pizza tasted so good. I just assumed it was because everything in Italy is better. Then I met Robert McMullin, the pizza maker who, along with his wife, Carolina Tabares, opened Piatto Neapolitan Pizzeria in November in a tiny space just west of Hopping Gnome Brewery.

McMullin, who’d come to Wichita in 2003 to serve in the Air Force, later decided to open a Neapolitan-style pizzeria here. But before he did, he actually went to Naples to learn first-hand from a real “pizzaiolo,” or pizza maker, how it was done.

The most important lesson he learned was how to make the dough, which is unlike any pizza dough Wichita serves. It’s a delicate creation that goes through a three-day-long fermentation process, resulting in a crust that’s as light and fluffy as a cloud. He also learned that simplicity was key, and his pizza sauce – when he uses it – is made from just two ingredients: tomatoes and salt.

That, combined with the fact that McMullin uses high-quality cured meats for his pizzas as well as unusual-to-America toppings like pistachios and lemon zest, has made Piatto my new favorite restaurant in Wichita. I think about it several times a week, and even my friend who has sworn off carbs frequently wants to eat there.

The only downsides: Piatto is open only for dinner for now, though McMullin is thinking about adding Thursday-Saturday lunch hours soon. And the dining room is small. It seats about 40. So there’s a good chance you’ll be greeted with a wait for a table.

It’s worth it.

▪ On the menu: The menu itself is unique and eye-catching. Each diner gets an individual menu printed on a plank of wood – an ode to McMullin’s passion for woodworking. On it, they’ll find the pizza offerings divided into two categories. The “rossa” side offers pizzas topped with Piatto’s simple tomato sauce and basic ingredients like fresh buffalo mozzarella, basil, olive oil and a selection of meats like borsellino salami (the closest thing you’ll find on the menu to standard pepperoni) and nduja, a spreadable salami.

The “bianca” side of the menus offers sauce-less pizzas, but somehow, their flavors are even more complex. McMullin tops the Fresca pizza with pancetta and fresh-sliced lemons, which emerge from the oven edible, rind and all. The Francesca is topped with crushed pistachios, rosemary and red onion.

The restaurant offers a couple of appetizers, including a lovely Caprese salad made with fresh slices of mozzarella and tomato topped with basil. It also has one green salad, made with arugula, grape tomatoes, shredded mozzarella and a simple vinaigrette. And it has two desserts: tiramisu and a dessert called Saltimbocca con Nutella – basically one of those pillowy crusts filled with Nutella, then folded over, baked and served with whipped cream and fresh fruit.

▪ Don’t-miss dishes: During my first few visits to Piatto, I didn’t want to stray from the red-sauce side of the menu. The sauce is so simply perfect, and I’m a big tomato fan, so I couldn’t imagine a white pizza competing.

But that lemon.

Two of the pizzas on the white pizza selections are topped with lemon – one with zest and one with slices. The citrus flavor is so unique and bright, I’m not sure I’ll ever go red again. (One interesting side note: McMullin gets his lemon zest from Austin Dugan at 86 Cold Press, who otherwise would be tossing it out after he juices lemons for his own product.)

The best pizza from the “rossa” side of the menu, for me, is the Margherita, which lets all the best ingredients – the dough, the sauce and the fresh mozzarella that is sparingly sprinkled on the top – shine through. My pepperoni-loving husband, who’d prefer a standard American pizza any day of the week, loved the Diavola, topped with a spicy borsellino salami, fresh mozzarella, garlic, smoked sea salt and olive oil. The salami is skinny, and, when sliced, it resembles mini-pepperoni but has an extra meaty texture and salty flavor.

One note about the red-sauce pizzas: The simplicity of the tomato sauce and the freshness of the mozzarella cause a bit of liquid to seep into the center of the pizza when it’s sliced. It’s a new experience but not an unpleasant one, because sopping it up with the doughy top of the crust is excessively satisfying. In Naples, McMullin said, people don’t cut their pizzas into slices like Americans do. They attack them whole with a knife and fork, so the liquid is not an issue.

My favorite pizza from the “bianco” side of the menu was without a doubt the Manzoni. It’s topped with Berkshire prosciutto, mozzarella, olive oil and a generous amount of lemon zest. The zing of the zest is unexpected but brightens all of the other flavors. You can also get the lemon experience from the Fresca, which boasts pancetta, mozzarella, olive oil and whole slices of lemon. Yes, you really can eat the softened rind, which, although wonderful, takes some getting used to. Practice for me will make perfect, I’m sure.

And I would never have guessed that nuts belong on pizza, but the chew that the crushed pistachios add to the Francesca pizza is wonderful, and the nuttiness complements the woodiness of the rosemary perfectly.

Don’t skip Piatto’s showstopper appetizer, which is called Misto Salumi. It’s a big tray of many of the restaurant’s meats, artfully arranged and topped with slices of fresh mozzarella, sliced grape tomatoes, basil and olive oil. It also comes with a full-sized, baked pizza crust cut into cracker-like pieces. Diners are encouraged to load the meats and toppings on the dough pieces, but it’s also fun to appreciate and compare the brininess of each meat by eating it unadorned.

If you have any room left, also order the Saltimboca Nutella, a chewy, sweet treat that could be improved only by a big scoop of gelato on top.

▪ Ambience: The small dining room is tasteful but austere, with tables and chairs that can be rearranged to accommodate different-sized parties. The lighting is dim, which I like, and the centerpiece of the restaurant is a prep station lined with bar seats, situated just in front of McMullin’s custom-made, imported Italian wood-fired oven, which cooks each of his pizzas to perfection in about 90 seconds. Be sure to sit at the bar at least once and watch him and his assistant, both covered in flour, prepare each pizza and slide it into the glowing oven.

McMullin also plans to soon add a patio with seating for an additional 40 diners in back and later will add even more seats out front.

▪ Price range: Pizzas range from $10 for a Margherita to $16 for the Rucola, topped with smoked prosciutto, arugula, grape tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, parmigiano reggiano and olive oil.

▪ Service: Piatto’s servers are friendly and prompt, and customers who also frequent Espresso to Go Go will notice that McMullin employs many of its staff during the evening hours.

If you would like to nominate a restaurant to be reviewed, call 316-268-6327.

Denise Neil: 316-268-6327, @deniseneil

Piatto Neapolitan Pizzeria

out of four

Where: 1706 E. Douglas; 316-866-6525

Type of food: Neapolitan-style pizza

Alcohol: Wine and craft beer, including one made special with next-door neighbor Hopping Gnome Brewing

Hours: 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5-8 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday

Website: www.piattoict.com

Denise Neil’s previous four-star reviews: She’s been reviewing restaurants since late 2000 and has awarded only two perfect scores before now: One to Chester’s Chophouse in 2005 and one to Kanai Sushi in 2010.