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Sunday Brunch

Sunday Brunch: This is the Night When the Pizza's Cooked Right and We Call it Via Napoli

19 February 2012

Bella Notte, friends! It is a beautiful night, no? As we close this week's special Lady and the Tramp Week, we'll take the road less traveled and head on over to Epcot. Though Tony's Town Square Restaurant on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom is the obvious choice for this special week, we'll take a look at Walt Disney World's other popular, and also newest, Italian restaurant, Via Napoli, where Bella Notte is every night.

Via Napoli is housed inside a stately manor which stands at the rear of the Italy pavilion in Epcot's World Showcase. According to Nick Valenti, the CEO of the Patina Restaurant Group that runs Via Napoli and also the neighboring Tutto Italia, the restaurant was formerly the stables of a wealthy Venetian Family. The son of the family, expected to take over the family business, was not interested at all and left home to travel. On his journey, he discovered the delicious pizza in Naples and fell in love with all things Neapolitan. The father had to close the stables since his son did not take up the business, but when the son returned, his father allowed him to start a new business and open a Pizzeria in the former stables.

As the story says, Via Napoli's origins are due to young man's trip to Naples, Italy. The restaurant is aptly named and in English loosely translates to Naples Road or Naples Way. Authenticity plays a huge role at Via Napoli, as the restaurant does indeed have the high, cavernous feel with majestic archways throughout, indicating that it formerly housed prized stallions. Three gigantic, brick wood burning ovens are on the far left after entering the restaurant. Decorated to look like Roman gods or some sort of legendary being, each oven is named after a Volcano in Italy: Stromboli, Vesuvio, and Etna.

In addition to the authentic atmosphere and culinary tools, the restaurant boasts use of 'Italian water.' Though the water is not actually from Italy, the Patina Group is known for using specially formulated water that mimics the mineral content found in the water in Italy. This enables the restaurant to create the closest thing to authentic Italian pizza dough. The water is what really gives dough its specific characteristics and explains why breads around the world are highly region specific (that is why Florida bagels are far less quality to those found in New York and New Jersey).

Great bread made with Italian style water

Though my goal is to eventually dine at all the fine dining establishments in Walt Disney World, I still find myself returning to certain restaurants, with Via Napoli being one of them. I've had the pleasure of dining there three times within the past 6 months. It has easily become a favorite among guests because not only is the food delicious, the food quality directly reflects its price. Disney World is notorious for being the place to spend a pretty penny, but at Via Napoli, you get what you expect and even more at those prices.

The first time I ate at Via Napoli in July of 2011, I was a tad bit underwhelmed and my constant dining companion Alex was furious with me because this is definitely her favorite place to dine. I was confused that I was not as impressed as I thought I'd be until I did a little research at home about Via Napoli. I do not blame her at all for building up my expectations, but the real reason is because I've had this pizza before. My first experience with the closest thing to authentic Italian pizza was actually 5 years prior, at a restaurant called Naples in Downtown Disney Anaheim.

Saturday Matinee Albert G circa 2006, ready to devour this brick oven pizza...notice the hungry grandma in the back...

Naples is also run by the Patina Restaurant Group, featuring most likely a similar, if not the same menu as Via Napoli. The two restaurants also essentially have the same name. Anyhow, I do remember eating here, while the specifics of the meal are not clear, I do remember feeling this was the best pizza I ever ate. I later reassured Alex that though my first time at Via Napoli was not the same 'best pizza I ever ate' experience she had gone through, it was actually my second time! I did enjoy it enough to return for pizza a third and then fourth time.

When Alex returned over the Christmas season, we dined at Via Napoli and I made sure to take notes as for this meal, we splurged a little and got more than pizza. I started with a Blood Orange Aqua Fresca. While walking through the dining area, you pass the servers' beverage station where large containers of the Aqua Fresca tantalize guests with their color and promise of refreshing respite from the hot Florida weather. I gave in and ordered the drink, finding it to be not too sweet, maintaining a very natural flavor. It was not an orange juice, but flavored water as the name suggests, having a very fresh, strong orange flavor. Juices are sugary, but the Aqua Fresca managed to capture the natural essence of the Blood Orange and distribute it through the beverage.

Blood Orange Aqua Fresca beautifully presented with a perfectly sliced orange sliver. the orange slices must go through a vigorous screening process 'Sorry you don't make the cut!'

Next, we ordered an antipasti, which is not an appetizer, but simply the course served before the pasta dish (even though we didn't order pasta for our entr'e). The antipasti is a bit like an appetizer in that it prepares you for what is coming later, but it is not an appetizer. We shared a plate of Arancini, fried risotto balls with mozzarella and a meat ragu sauce. The arancini was perfectly crisp on the outside, having no residual grease you sometimes find with fried food. The soft grain of the risotto mixed with the creamy, slightly salty mozzarella was perfectly accented with the acid of the meat ragu sauce.

On my most recent trip to Via Napoli with my family in January, my sister ordered the Prosciutto e Melone, which was wedges of cantaloupe wrapped in prosciutto di parma. And interesting concept of fruit and meat, I was intrigued to try it. It was'odd, but it worked. The salty prosciutto contrasted heavily with the sweet, juicy cantaloupe. The hard part was cutting off pieces to share with the family, as this was probably a dish best eaten by one person rather than many.

After the first course, we reached the main reason we came to Via Napoli: the brick oven baked pizza made with 'Caputo flour imported from Naples, San Marzano tomatoes, handmade fior di latte mozzarella, and water from'wells identical to the water found in Naples...' Alex and I ordered a Large build your own pizza, big enough to serve 2-3 people. We chose pepperoni for the whole pizza and one half mushrooms for me and the other half spicy Italian sausage for Alex.

Who's going to eat all of that?

The pizza was a terrific portion size, and when the server delivered it, it often grabbed the attention of neighboring diners. The pepperoni was drier and smaller than those you see on typical American pizza. The tiny round discs of meat crisped very well in the oven and were not oily like you find on mall and chain pizza shops. The mushrooms were very fresh, soft and savory, cooked to perfection. The spicy Italian sausage was not too spicy and seemed more herby than spicy, with just enough kick.

My last visit to Via Napoli, I thought about getting something other than pizza, but I could not resist, and shared one with my brother. This meal, we were treating our parents, so we also got dessert:

The dessert was good, though nothing too remarkable was worth remembering to mention other than they were exactly the desserts you expected them to be at the quality we've come to expect at Via Napoli. The presentation though was excellent, except for the tiramisu, which seemed a bit messy. Still, one comes to Via Napoli for the pizza, dessert is just a bonus.

The main thing that Alex and I felt was important when dining at Via Napoli was that in order to appreciate the authentic Neapolitan pizza, one must be open to thinking differently about pizza compared to the traditional Americanized pizza pie. I believe that's what surprises guests when they dine here; they've had pizza at home either delivery or frozen, greasy pizza from pizza chains, and conveyor belt pizza at Pizza Planet. When they get dinner at Via Napoli, they experience pizza how it started to be and idealistically should always be, making it truly a Bella Notte.


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