From Naples to Philly, fired up (900 degrees) with passion

Local Life June 13, 2012 0 Comments

New BYOB DiMeo’s in Andorra; romance for the palate
by LEN LEAR
Thanks to its pleasant climate and beautiful location on the Bay of Naples, the city of Naples in southern Italy has been a renowned pleasure resort for more than 2,000 years. In the first century B.C., the greatest Roman poet, Virgil, wrote paeans to the luxurious villas that dotted the coast of Naples. Greek refugees founded the city, but Romans added public baths and aqueducts to improve the quality of life in Naples, which also became celebrated for its many feasts and spectacles and great food.

Pino DiMeo (right), his wife Lucia and son Antimo, who have been getting mostly five-star ratings on local restaurant website blogs, say that business has been “way beyond our expectations.”

And thanks to Pino and Lucia DiMeo, treasured Neapolitan imports to the Philadelphia area in the 1980s, we can all savor the finest gastronomic delights from Naples just a few minutes from Chestnut Hill, and we don’t even have to pay for parking. In April of this year, the DiMeo family, with their chiseled movie star looks and Old World charm, opened Pizzeria DiMeo’s in the Andorra Shopping Center location where Argento’s had previously been for many years. (This family should have their own TV reality show. They are a lot better looking than the Kardashians — and they have actual talent!)

I deliberately did not put the word “Pizzeria” in the headline for this article because it would be deceiving. DiMeo’s could be called a “New Age Pizzeria” or a hybrid between a Stephen Starr or Marc Vetri pizza palace (Osteria and Stella, for example) and a fine dining Italian BYOB.

Owner Pino DiMeo, now 44, came to Philly in the 1980s and 24 years ago opened Allegro Pizzeria next to the WCAU-TV building on City Line Avenue. He later opened a second operation in Maple Glen, a third in Conshohocken five years ago and a fourth in Wilmington one-and-a-half years ago. But in spite of their success with traditional New York-style pizzerias that depend mostly on takeout business and even on selling pizzas by the slice, Pino’s son, Antimo, 19, a full-time student at Drexel University who also works in the family business, was pushing for more authenticity.

“Ever since Antimo was 10 years old, he has said, ‘Pop, I want to make the real stuff — true to our roots, Napoletana,’” Pino said. “We tried for two years to get it just right. We used six different tomatoes and different cheeses. We finally added creamy buffalo mozzarella, which comes from the milk of water buffalo, and extra virgin olive oil from Tuscany, and we knew we finally had it right.”

Also, unlike most takeout pizzerias where you call ahead and it takes 15 minutes or more to bake the pizza in  a traditional gas oven, DiMeo’s brick oven is set to at least 900 degrees. No one has to order ahead by phone because it only takes 90 seconds at this temperature to finish the baking. “The 900 degrees blisters the crust and chars it across to give it that chewy touch,” said Antimo.

The dough is also made two days in advance of “double zero” flour, yeast and water to get a natural rise. The DiMeos import buffalo mozzarella weekly as well as San Marzano tomatoes and expensive  Neapolitan Pasta di Gragnano from Giuseppe Afeltra, which they contend is the best dried pasta in the world. Even the water used to make the dough is imported from Naples. “We made batches of dough with Wilmington tap water and with bottled water from Naples,” said Antimo. “It was no contest. It was much better with the bottled water from Naples.”

So far most of the comments by customers on restaurant websites like yelp.com and urbanspoon.com have been five-star raves, which one almost never sees for traditional pizzerias. For example, Mary G. wrote on June 4 on urbanspoon.com: “Have eaten at DiMeo’s three times. It has gotten better with each visit. Have tried the pasta bolognese (good), chopped salad (very good), pizza with artichokes, mushrooms, prosciutto (excellent). Desserts are different and delicious, but beware, they are huge. Better share them!”

A typical comment on yelp.com is this one from Frank S. on May 14: “I have lived in East Falls/Roxborough for most of my life … I am so thrilled to have found pizza of this caliber (at DiMeo’s) 10 minutes from home, with actual free parking! If you are living in Andorra, Roxborough, Manayunk, East Falls or even Chestnut Hill/Lafayette Hill, which are 15 minutes away, and want ‘city’ pizza without going into the city, I am psyched to tell you it now exists. P.S.: Please eat here because I am so over Papa John’s and the other thick, greasy Greek-style nasty pizzas I have been stuck with all these years!”

Although the Margherita pizza ($12) is DiMeo’s signature dish, their entire menu does not have a joker in the deck. Some of the other dishes that blew us away were the antipasto with imported Italian cheeses and cured meats ($12); the Fica pizza with fig spread (honest; that is not a figment of my imagination), prosciutto, arugula and truffle oil ($13); Zucca, a bowl of al dente penne pasta with sausage, butternut squash and Italian cheeses ($15); and La Nutella, an outrageously sensual dessert with hazelnutty Nutella spread on pizza dough, cut into chunks, baked in the wood-fired oven and topped with powdered sugar.

For lunch the most popular dish is the $6 pizza for one. “At any conventional pizza place, $6 would only buy you a couple of slices, and here you get a whole pie,” said Scott Stein, a spokesman for DiMeo’s and a Lafayette Hill resident.

In addition to Pino, his beautiful wife Lucia and Antimo, the DiMeos’ daughter with the million-dollar smile, Maria, 18, also works at the Andorra location. During our dinner there last Friday night, Our server, Lynn, who is also a full-time social worker at Hahnemann Hospital (who works nights at DiMeo’s), was a delightful and enthusiastic booster of all things DiMeo.

“When the heart and head are together,” said Pino, “you can do anything. If it’s only for the money, you’re going to go down. Our heart and soul and passion are in this food. That’s why we love being here, even with all the hours we put in.” (I don’t know how they find the time, but it is obvious that Pino and Antimo manage to find many hours to workout with very heavy weights at L.A. Fitness.)

DiMeo’s has 52 seats inside and eight seats outside, but they have had as many as 400 customers in one night. On one wall are several huge, beautiful vintage family photos from Italy, and on the opposite wall is an artistic image of a volcano. (Naples is situated right next to Mt. Vesuvius, the site of a famous volcano.)

On Father’s Day this Sunday, June 17, the restaurant will be giving away Nutella desserts in honor of Lucia’s father, Alfonso, who died three years ago of leukemia at the age of 72. They will also be making a donation to the Leukemia Society of America.

DiMeo’s is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. For more information, call 215-621-6134 or visit www.pizzeriadimeos.com

Want to support the Local? Join the Chestnut Hill Community Association. Membership helps fund what we do. Join today.