Restaurant News & Reviews

Restaurant review: Crust gets pizza right

Dante pizza has arrabiata, sausage, fior di latte, garlic, Parmesan and balsamic honey.
Dante pizza has arrabiata, sausage, fior di latte, garlic, Parmesan and balsamic honey. Herald-Leader

During my two-plus decades in Lexington, Smashing Tomato has been one of the great culinary additions to our community.

Pizza has for the most part strayed far from its roots here in America, but this very small chain brought it back to its delicious essentials, with an emphasis on quality and simplicity.

A few years ago this restaurant group, which also includes Bella Notte, opened a third pizzeria in French Quarter Square on Richmond Road, just outside New Circle Road. In my few visits I didn't think it quite matched the other two in quality or atmosphere so I was intrigued to learn that it had been transformed into Crust.

This new restaurant concept falls somewhere between the other two. It has table service like Bella Notte but a much leaner menu that relies, as the name suggests, on the dough that forms the crust for the pizzas, the bread for the sandwiches and what the restaurant calls crusts, its take on breadsticks.

That dough, made with flour imported from Italy, undergoes a 12-hour rising-fermentation. The bread, crust, etc., that result from baking that dough at high temperatures in a wood-fired oven is very, very good. It is light, thanks no doubt to the long rising, but richly textured — crusty on the outside but not too hard, with a subtle smoky flavor.

The ingredients Crust combines with this bread are worthy of it.

Clearly, Crust's owners have worked hard and looked far and wide to source excellent ingredients. The menu lists some of them: herbs from Richmond, mozzarella di bufala from Campania, Italy; prosciutto from Iowa, other meats from California, garlic and eggs from Bloomfield.

It works. Each pizza, salad and sandwich that I sampled was a wonderful balance of flavors and textures, each distinct but working well together.

For example, the dante pizza ($13) combines the spicy arrabiata tomato sauce with sausage, the creamy mozzarella type cheese called fior di latte, Parmesan cheese, garlic and balsamic honey. Reading the menu the honey strikes an odd chord in that mix, but the key is the light touch that makes it an interesting counterpoint to the strong, spicy, savory flavors in the rest of the dish.

We also sampled the funkhi ($14), a pizze bianco, or white pizza, with a mixture of four types of mushrooms on top with ricotta and parmesan cheeses, an egg (not uncommon in Italian pizza, it cooks in the high heat of oven) and chili. Again, the distinct but mild flavors of the mushrooms were set off by the chili while the ricotta and the egg added different and distinct tastes and a creamy texture.

At a lunch visit I tried the Palermo sandwich ($9), a mixture of tuna, the salty, crumbly ricotta salata cheese, marinated peppers and capers. Served between two slices of the smoky bread, it was a satisfying mix of the flavors and textures. I'm happy to report that I saved half for lunch the next day, and it was still very good.

The only things I could categorize as disappointments were a butternut squash soup which, while fresh and tasty, was too bland. For dessert one night, we tried affogato, listed on the menu as a shot of espresso with vanilla gelato. I really think what I got was rather ordinary vanilla ice cream, which simply didn't stand up to the espresso.

I'm not much of a dessert person but I will say the only other one I tried at Crust was outstanding. The base of the butterscotch budino ($7), a whipped mixture of ricotta, cream, sugar and vanilla, is topped with salted caramel and a spiced walnut. Here, again, the salt may sound strange, but the hint of it sets off the rich, sweet flavors in everything else. Try it.