During the past 100 years or so, culinary creativity has made the versatile pizza fair game for infinite variations in dough and toppings, but Naples remains the proud inventor of the original.
So it must have been quite a validation when Smashing Tomato — owned by the Lexington company Tomato Express, which also runs Bella Notte — was recently certified by Verace Pizza Napoletana, the Italian organization that confers the stamp of authenticity to Neapolitan-style pizzas internationally. Each pizza must be formed by hand and cooked in a wood-burning oven at 900 degrees for about 90 seconds. That straightforward formula, used by Smashing Tomato, also produces the best pizza, demonstrating the wisdom of keeping things simple and doing them exceptionally well.
The menu's strengths center on various dishes using good dough served piping hot, simple salads and easy-drinking inexpensive wine.
Departures from that staple disappoint. That can be through concept, such as the rolled lasagna ($6.95), with its lackluster herbed ricotta stuffing and one-dimensional San Manzano tomato sauce unsuccessfully posing as marinara; timing, such as the rare delay in service that allows the pizza to cool; or the simple careless omission of a topping.
But I have happily eaten dozens of times at both locations of Smashing Tomato (one behind Fayette Mall, the other out Hamburg way) and I can say forcefully that these gaffes are the exception. Settle down in the understated interior that foreshadows a great dining experience. The walls are earthy shades of brick red and olive green (suggesting the ovens and oil, perhaps?) accented with circular designs evoking, of course, pizza pies. Halogen lamps make everything prettier, the music is light and low, the vibe soothing; maybe that is why even the solo diner feels at ease.
The terrific artichoke dip — a bubbling cheesy mass studded with artichoke hearts — is a great snack with the salty, herb-sprinkled flatbread wedges ($6.50) and a nice, big glass of uncomplicated Folonari Chianti ($5).
All the salads are outstanding, reminiscent of the light hand of California cuisine.
I love the unfettered Caesar ($3.95 small, $6.45 regular) with crunchy croutons.
And I adore the fabulous original chopped house salad ($3.95 small, $6.45 regular) with crisp romaine, bits of radicchio, plump walnuts, paper-thin red onions and some shredded Parmesan, all tossed in the right amount of a balanced balsamic vinaigrette. This might get my vote for the best house salad in town; just don't add blackened chicken (an extra $1.50) that ought to be hot but instead arrived refrigerator-cold.
If you enjoyed the flatbread, you will love the huge Piegarsi Classico sandwich ($6) with a little prosciutto, genoa salami and pepperoni; provolone to add richness; smatterings of pink pickled onions and arugula; and a smear of Dijon dressing. There's not too much of anything, all the flavor components are there, and according to Smashing Tomato's nutritional analysis, it is a pleasing 475 calories.
Tops, however, is the pizza (base price $6 for a 12-inch pie). Its thin crust is tender and supple, a little chewy yet slightly crisp; and the sublime pizzaiola sauce — also available as spicy arrabiata — does the dance that tomatoes, garlic, onions and herbs were born to do. A mere handful of mozzarella tops the pie. You can customize further from 20 toppings ($1 to $2 each; only the prosciutto costs $3).
Desserts are few and focused. The chocolate torte (a bargain at $3.50) makes a nice ending, inspired by molten chocolate cake with a warm, gooey filling and topped with a vanilla "gelato" that, missing the ultra-creamy texture, tasted more like regular ice cream.
Even after the required wretched excess of the holidays, you can share a large Caesar and the best cheese pizza in town for a mere 478 calories a person, making la vita very dolce indeed.