When 156 Bistro closed in December, it seemed like it might just be for renovations. Turns out that was only part of the story: While the inside of the St. Paul Street space becomes a tangle of construction, two new partners are busy building a new eatery there, anchored by a two-ton, wood-fired oven, in which they'll cook authentic Neapolitan pizza.
Owners John Rao and Leslie Wells expect their business, Pizzeria Verita, to be open by April. Their motto: "The truth is in the dough."
Rao says he has spent years perfecting the crust for a true-to-tradition Neapolitan pizza, a distinct and revered style defined by a thin, airy, sometimes charred crust and simple, fresh toppings. "It took me awhile to figure it out," says Rao of the crust, which he eventually mastered with Tipo 00 pizza flour from Italy and a "slow rise" of 24 to 36 hours.
Inside a 900-degree oven, the pies cook in 90 seconds and emerge blistered. Then, they're topped with uber-fresh ingredients — San Marzano tomatoes, fresh or bufala mozzarella, fresh herbs, prosciutto, arugula, broccoli rabe, fennel sausage or other local meats and cheeses. At one of Rao's private tastings, a burrata-topped pie prompted an acquaintance to spontaneously invest in the new business. "People would tell me, 'There's nothing like this crust,'" says Rao, brimming with energy.
Wells also studied Neapolitan pizza at Kesté Pizza in New York City, an American epicenter of the tradition. "You keep it simple, and all of the flavors pop," says Wells. The menu will also feature salads created by Chez Panisse-trained Amy Bacon, and the owners have "exciting things" planned for the bar, though they won't disclose the details just yet other than to say, "It will be a first for Vermont."
Rao and Wells met over two decades ago when both worked at the Sirloin Saloon — he as a chef, she as a manager. Rao eventually went into real estate, and Wells was the owner of the Purple Knights Pizza, later PK Café, in Colchester, which closed last year. In an initial reprise of their roles, Rao will helm the kitchen — at least at first — and Wells will manage the front of the house, along with the former owner of the beloved Chicken Bone Café, David Abdoo, who will serve as general manager.
To lighten up the ambience, the partners have busted through the north wall to create a bank of arched windows and built long wooden benches along some of the walls. They'll also scatter some farm tables in amongst the tradtitional two- and four-tops. "We want to bring authenticity to this fun, hip environment," says Wells.
Both Rao and Wells think the eatery will blend well with those that surround it, including American Flatbread, just down the street. "It's a whole different product. It will be a good complement," says Rao. For now, they're awaiting the arrival of their massive Gianni Acunto oven. Along with the Italian tomatoes and flour, "We're trying to fool the dough into thinking it's in Naples," he quips.