BY ALEX SUNDSTROM
Every pizza joint makes their own crust, and the better ones cook their tomato sauce rather than spoon it out of a can. But every morning, the workers at Real Pizza even make fresh mozzarella cheese from scratch. This sort of passion for ingredients is tough to find within walking distance of Harvard, where most pizza makes me weep bitter tears and yearn for Domino’s. At its best moments Real Pizza is comparable to my favorite Neapolitan pizza place in Rome. Given that the restaurant is the brainchild of Rene Becker, who owns the nearby Hi-Rise Café and is responsible for its delicious range of breads, this is not a big surprise, but nonetheless a pleasant one.
Becker will never be accused of pandering to the masses. At Real Pizza, all pizzas are 12″, the only soft drink available is a “Real Coke,” ($2), a made-to-order combination of Coca-Cola syrup and carbonated water that is warm, syrupy and verges on flat, and the few uncomfortable tables in the small storefront feel like a begrudging concession to would-be diners. The staff is brusque and curt, acting like priests at a pizza temple. Fortunately for the customers streaming in and out of the place all day, Real Pizza really is a temple, treating the authenticity and quality of its ingredients with a respect normally reserved for minor deities. Because all the pizzas are the same size, Real Pizza can employ a loud timer to make sure the pizzas come out just right each time.
The eponymous Real Pizza ($10) is the best showcase of these ingredients by far. The piquant, acidic tomato sauce has soft chunks of fresh tomato and the perfect amount of oregano, basil and sage. Even given Becker’s extensive background in baking, the quality of the crust is astonishing. The thin crust is a paradox: blackened and crisp on the bottom, it leaves trails of flour rather than grease on your fingers, yet it is moist, chewy and slightly sweet in the middle. The air bubbles and loft of the crust are quite surprising given the electric ovens Real Pizza uses. The mozzarella rounds the pizza out perfectly: Bubbling in pools on the pizza, it has a clean, buttery flavor with just a hint of sourness, and perfectly rounds out the flavor of the pie.
Adding a topping or two to the flagship pie can’t hurt, but the more exotic offerings at Real Pizza, while they retain the extremely high standard of the ingredients, combine them in ill-advised ways. The “Wolf 359,” one of many astronomy-themed pizzas on the menu, replaces the mozzarella and tomato sauce with Red Bliss potatoes, Reggiano parmesan and chives. It doesn’t’ work. The potatoes are soft, too similar texturally to the crust, and the whole result is too bland. It comes off like scalloped potatoes with an infusion of extra carbohydrates.
The white clam pizza ($17), with fresh clams, more parmesan, garlic and parsley is frustrating – the clams are tender and moist, despite being fired in the oven, if you pick them off the pizza, but the Reggiano parmesan totally overwhelms them if you eat the pie straight. This is not something you want if you’re paying close to $20 for what is essentially a small pizza. The Sicilian-style deep-dish pizza that is sold by the slice ($2 for cheese, $2.50 for pepperoni), dries out too much when reheated, and in any case has a skewed crust-to-topping ratio. The pepperoni is nothing special, leaking oil all over the fresh mozzarella and spoiling its flavor.
Italian cooking traditionally focuses on letting a small number of high-quality ingredients speak for themselves, and Real Pizza is certainly strongest when it does this rather than wandering off into pretentious complexity. Stick to the simple stuff, though, and your Real Pizza experience will be just that.
359 Huron Ave. Cambridge
Hours: Mon-Thurs 9-9, Fri 9-10, Sat. 5-9