Tim Mink and Karalee Nielsen of Rev Foods, which previously and deliciously brought us Poe's Tavern, Raval and Taco Boy, have once again merged their minds and Rev's exceptional talent pool to deliver just the right product, at just the right time, in just the right place and in just the right way. The uncannily on-the-mark result this time around the local restaurant fast track is called Monza. It proves to be a delectably edible ode to the justifiably celebrated Italian racetrack (by the same name) and the even more justifiably celebrated food that fuels Italian appetites - Neapolitan style pizza.
Co-owned by Mink and Nielsen and situated next door to its older, but fresh-as-ever restaurant sister, Raval, Monza is arguably the Ferrari of Rev's impeccable restaurant pack. Or, maybe it just seems that way because Charleston has been in dire need of Grand Prix-grade Neapolitan pizza for a long, long time. While The Holy City is rich in the likes of fat, juicy burgers (a la Poe's), tasty Mediterranean style tapas (a la Raval) and ample Mexican goodness (a la Taco Boy), it was entirely lacking servings of Neapolitan pizza's subtle, sublime goodness hallmarked by a slim, chewy, and airy crust and deftly appointed, quality toppings. Monza's delivers the added value of serving up the best pizza pies in town in a sleek, happening (and entirely spotless, by the way) setting.
The heat's on in Monza's kitchen, to the tune of 1,000 degrees in its eternal wood-burning oven. Oak is the wood of choice that drives the flavor and high heat behind the phenomenal texture and taste of Monza's pizza dough. An instant puff in the oven ( just under 90 seconds for each pie) made with dough prepared with imported ingredients including San Felice wheat flour, Neapolitan yeast, and filtered, ph balanced water, kneaded tenderly together by a mixer from Naples, makes for remarkable crust after crust.
And, Monza doesn't create the common small crime that its closest competitors are sometimes prone to - the dreaded sauce and topping pizza overload that leads to soupy, muddled and hard-to-eat pizza. The kitchen maintains idyllic restraint on quantity to maintain lightness, while doling out quality toppings in spades. Each pizza is topped with, among other things, milky, fiore di latte mozzarella and fresh, local produce and meats/seafood. In order to stay true to their Neapolitan mission, Monza does not allow ANY one to vary off course from the existing menu and says no to ALL substitutions.
All eight pizza choices ($9-$12) bear the names of racing greats from Alberto Ciccio Ascari to Emilio Materassi. You can read their brief bio's on the menu or glance at one of the many black and white photos that grace Monza's chic walls during your brief wait for what's sure to be a memorable pizza experience. Mine was! The "Ciccio" ($12) is Monza's version of a four-cheese or white pizza and came gingerly dressed with a bubbling blend of mozzarella, ricotta, pecorino and parmesan cheese and a heady perfume of garlic-infused olive oil. Talk about uncommonly good - it met its match in the "Fangio" ($12). This was a sweet/hot hit prepared with mozzarella, housemade sausage, roasted local hot peppers, a thin layer of a peppery tomato sauce, onions and garlic, too.
While you're munching on the pizza, don't miss an opportunity to soak up the playful, tasteful decor of tangerine colored rectangular glass tiles and hand-crafted zebra wood tables and booths. The shiny, white, aluminum Navy chairs look imposing at first, but have curved seats that are comfortably accommodating and really complete the neat look of the place. The mostly female service staff was dressed in prim, Euro-style black dresses cinched curtly at the waist with black aprons. Our waitress was eager to inform and to please and, as an extra special bonus, admitted when she didn't know an answer to a question, then scurried off to find it.
With pizza this good, appetizers might seem like an afterthought, but don't make that mistake. The clams casino ($6) feature sweet, local clams topped with butter and wine-prepped bread crumbs peppered with a delicate confetti of pancetta and red peppers. They don't get better than this. Neither does Monza's Italian version of southern shrimp and grits. A special for the evening ($8), it was laced with plump, absolutely local shrimp cooked to opaque perfection and swimming in a sausage-pregnant tomato gravy on top of a creamy, smooth pool of finely-ground polenta. Like the restaurant, the wine list, too, is well-thought out, well-priced and well-done.
Even though Monza delivers the real Neapolitan pizza deal, it only does so in-house. So, go, eat, drink and be merry. Monza's offers some of the freshest reasons to do so that I've come across in a while.
451 King Street, downtown
Open daily, 11 a.m.-until
(Website under development)