"This had better be some damn good pizza."
I grumbled these words about 30 minutes into our drive north on I-77. From our southwest Charlotte home just a few miles from the S.C. border, we'd been drawn on a 45-minute trek to Mooresville by the lure of the most amazing pizza this side of Naples. Inching through mysterious traffic slowdowns was not my idea of a fun Saturday afternoon.
Still, when a couple of friends in the food business give you breathless descriptions of quality of ingredients and attention to detail behind a restaurant's offerings, it's hard to ignore. When they do it for several weeks, with giddy Facebook posts to boot, you finally pull up your calendar and make plans.
Alino Pizzeria sits on Mooresville's South Main Street... or rather, off of South Main, at the end of a blocks-long brick warehouse occupied by Merino Home Furnishings, and separated from the road by a vast parking lot. The charming bicycles and Vespas parked in front of the entrance give a first hint of the fun and relaxed atmosphere found inside.
Step through the doors with hours posted as "11:30 a.m. - Until out of dough," and the long communal tables draw your eye back into the bright, high-ceilinged space framed by repeated brick arches. Stop to grab and peruse a menu from the basket of a powder-blue bike. You'll notice ordering is straightforward: ten types of pizza, from the simple Margherita (bufala mozzarella, tomato, basil, garlic) to more detailed fare like the Capri (mushroom, artichoke, ham and bufala mozzarella). A short list of five condiments are available on the Margherita, but otherwise there are no substitutions, and only one size. These pizzas are made for sharing, so bring a friend or three.
Step up to the counter when you're able — lines can get long on the weekends — and place your order. While waiting, I recommend glancing at the drink options in the multiple coolers to the left, because they are plentiful, including San Pelligrino, Peroni beer and a few Italian wines. You might also consider adding a salad to your order, though no one will think less of you if you opt for straight-up pizza night.
Once you've settled on your choices, take the stand displaying your order number, pick up your drinks and find a place to land. Tables seat about a dozen, so you've got a good chance of sharing benches with strangers.
While waiting for dinner, go ahead and follow your eyes to the back of the room, where three squat, round ovens custom-built in Naples, spit out pizzas at a steady clip. In front of their red bellies, taciturn young men stretch and pull dough, tossing rounds into the air. A plastic shield protects them from your drool, and in front of that sits a line of condiments: shredded cheeses, dried herbs, minced garlic and — when they're available — spicy but flavorful Calabrian peppers. To your left, huge cans of Italian olive oils and canned roma-style tomatoes add even more color and authenticity.
All this points to a deep dedication in creating a true Neopolitan pizza here in the Carolina Piedmont. Generally considered the birthplace of one of our favorite adopted culinary children, it was in that southern Italian town that traditional flatbreads were first topped with intensely flavorful tomatoes, rich mozzarella from local water buffalo and fresh herbs. Key to the style of pizza are those wood-burning ovens, reaching temperatures hot enough to cook a pie in just a minute or two and leaving the crust "slightly charred and well done," as proclaimed by the menu.
So, even during busy pops, you don't have to wait very long for dinner to hit your table, arriving on full-sized steel sheet trays (don't worry, the trays are perfectly cool to touch). Barely fitting into their 18" wide nests, the pizzas' bright colors and irregular shapes invite you to gaze lovingly before divvying them up. Slices are large, so one pizza can feed two people. Still, our party of four ended up ordering three: the Toscano, with mild sausage and basil, the Pomodoro with sliced fresh cherry tomatoes, and the Bellucci with mushrooms, caramelized onions and truffle oil.
While the mushrooms were disappointingly bland, the other toppings resounded with flavor, from the creaminess of feta cheese to the bright pop of fresh tomatoes. The real star here however, is the crust.
An initially soft bite eases into the perfect resistance, creating a tender chewiness that invites you to take bite after bite, savoring the occasional char underneath. This is no cakey Pizza Hut concoction or a barely-there New York slip, but an ideal middle ground that carries its own flavor as well as those of its toppings.
So when the last bite is nibbled, was the pizza worth the drive? Having never tasted true Neopolitan style fare, I'd have to say yes. But as with any restaurant, it's more than the food that creates the experience. The fact of sitting together with friends in a casual comfortable atmosphere, laughing over exciting new flavors made the evening unquestionably worth it. Besides, at 10 p.m. there was hardly any traffic on the way back.