Ask for “Atlanta’s Best Pizza,” and locals dutifully repeat the list of pizzerias we are supposedly obligated to love: Varasano’s (where our pie was charred so deeply we found it inedible), Antico (overhyped pies, plastic utensils, and crowded communal tables), and Ammazza (more communal tables and floppy, uninspiring crusts).
Don’t be fooled. I’m Atlanta’s most pizza-obsessed diner, and I can tell you exactly where to get Atlanta’s best pizza: Ribalta. (And, unlike certain other Atlanta-based food critics and bloggers, this opinion is my own, and I’m not being paid to have it or share it.)
Ribalta? I know, I know. You’ve never heard of it. Ribalta is in Midtown, on 11th, between Peachtree and Crescent, next door to RA Sushi and across the street from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Instead of flashing signs or a huge red and white logo, Ribalta’s name is presented as a single line of (hard to read, mostly obscured by trees) script imprinted on the window over the doors. Blink and you’ll miss it.
What you will not miss — at least, once you’ve been there — are all those prissy, over-rated pies from Varasano’s, Antico, and Ammazza.
There’s lots to love on the Ribalta menu. Our friends and family are huge fans of the steak (yes, the steak): a thick, delicately-seasoned slab of perfectly-cooked beef served with a side of crispy fries. This entree is better than you’ll find at most high-dollar steakhouses; anywhere else, it might be the main event.
You can’t go wrong with the appetizer menu, either. The fried calamari is light and crisp on the outside, with soft, fresh, tender flesh on the inside. The Caprese salad would make a great summer lunch entree. And the Brussels sprouts (baked with pancetta, dusted with Romano cheese) made me love vegetables again.
For me, though, the pie’s the thing … so when I’m at Ribalta, I’m getting the pizza.
And I’m not just ordering any pizza. Atlanta’s best pizza is a very specific pizza: Ribalta’s “Pizza in Pala Ciliegino” (say “Chee-lay-GEE-no”) with sausage and spicy salami added.
There are other pizzas on the menu. Most people, in fact, will order one of Ribalta’s Napoletana pies. These feature the more familiar, softer, thicker dough, dotted with just the right amount of char.
The Napoletana pizzas come with one of two sauces (red or white), and a broad range of toppings. On the red side, you can start with the marinara or the doc. (The first is practically bare, while the second features generous dollops of buffalo mozzarella). If you usually order a pepperoni pie, you’ll want the brigante (mozz and spicy salami). Seafood fans will be drawn to the fruity di mare, with calamari, octopus, shrimp, and clams on a bed of garlic-spiked tomato sauce.
The white line offers the familiar four-cheese, the parma (with tomatoes and prosciutto), the Ribalta (sausage and broccoli!), and combos (like the ham and mushroom).
All these Napoletana pizzas are pretty good. I wouldn’t hesitate to order them. On the MillionMileMark pizza scale, where 1 is a freezer-burned frozen Chef Boyardee pizza and 10 is a pizza that, when eaten, transports you to a new level of culinary enlightenment, Ribalta’s Napoletana pizzas score a very solid seven.
And then: there’s the pala pizza.
Atlanta’s Best Pizza
The pala pizzas all feature a house secret: a double-baked crust. On the outside, the pala pizza crust is thin and light and crispy. On the inside, it’s softer and more doughy. Bitten into, it delivers a satisfying snap; once being chewed, it transforms into a warm, yeasty, pillow-soft delight.
This twice-baked quality allows Ribalta’s pala pizzas to be something the Ammazza and Antico pies cannot: rigid enough to bear the weight of the sauce and toppings. Neapolitan-style pies are all too quickly rendered soft and sloppy: saturated with sauce and limp as pasta. By contrast, Ribalta’s pala pizza is positively manly. It holds its shape. It does its job. It’s there for you, all through dinner, doing what an artfully designed crust ought to do.
And that’s just the crust, mind you. Like the Napoletana pizzas, palas come in red and white. The red can be topped with eggplant, zucchini, radishes, and buffalo mozz. The white can be topped with sweet sausage, capers, olives, porcini mushrooms, pancetta, and more. They have alluring names: norma, verdure, zola, burrata.
But here’s the truth: Atlanta’s best pizza isn’t even on the darn menu … so most diners don’t even know about it.
So, if you want to sample a pizza that merits a solid 9.5 on the MillionMileMark Pizza Perfection scale, here’s what to order: the pizza in pala ciliegino with Italian sausage and spicy salami added. There is magic — a special chemistry — in this particular arrangement of crust and toppings. Trust me on this.
Recently, friends heard me raving about Ribalta’s pala pizzas. But when they went, they ordered a simple white pala with mushrooms and pancetta. They came back to me saying, “It was good, particularly the crust … but it’s not Atlanta’s best pizza.”
They had that experience, dear reader, because they didn’t follow Uncle Mark’s very specific instructions: “Pizza in pala ciliegino with Italian sausage and spicy salami added.”
Only this recipe hits that spot. Only this recipe gives you the tension between the sweetness of the crumbled sausage, the burn of the salami, the neutrality of the raw buffalo mozz (added after baking, to protect its delicate nature), the acidic splendor of the red sauce, and the snap of that remarkable twice-baked crust.
Say it with me: “Pizza in pala ciliegino with Italian sausage and spicy salami added.” Tell the waiter: “Pizza in pala ciliegino with Italian sausage and spicy salami added.” Whisper it tonight in your prayers: “Pizza in pala ciliegino with Italian sausage and spicy salami added.”
Other Things You Need To Know
Ribalta is a fine, fine destination for a romantic dinner for two, a friendly dinner for four, or a boisterous large family celebration (call ahead). In the daytime, it’s cheerful; at night, the lights are low. When packed, it can be noisy, so if you arrive when there’s a crowd, consider the pleasant patio seating if weather permits.
Ribalta’s warm, genuine, enthusiastic staff set a standard for how casual Midtown dining should be supported. Come more than once, and you’ll be remembered — and welcomed. And maybe hugged. Like Frank Bragg’s always delightful crew over at Radial, Ribalta’s staff knows you, enjoys you, and takes good care of you. Trust their wine recommendations. Let them spoil you a little. Enjoy the eye candy. (There’s a lot on display.)
And finally: at some point, you will notice that the pizza I have recommended (do you remember what to say?) is going to run you about $35.00.
Yes, it’s true. Atlanta’s best pizza has an admission price. The other pies on the menu are less expensive (between $10 for the marinara and up to $22 for the noble, which arrives laden with shaved black truffle). You will be tempted to change your mind. And, as I’ve said, those are good. They’re good.
They are not, however, “pizza in pala ciliegino with Italian sausage and spicy salami added.”
Trust me on this: this version of the pala is a hardy, satisfying meal. It arrives as a large, rectangular slab of perfection. One normal person — heck, one hungry person — could not possibly eat it all. Dining alone? Ask for a box. Dining with one other person? Split the pala. Dining at a table of four? Order one pala (you know which one), plus an appetizer and a dessert.
One Last Thing
At the end of the meal, when you are happy and sleepy and stuffed with Atlanta’s best pizza, you are going to have the opportunity to sample one of Atlanta’s best desserts.
I know, I know. Just do it.
Ribalta is serving tiramisu. Not just any tiramisu, mind you, but a a tiramisu based an owner’s relatives recipe. I am not normally a fan of tiramisu, but this transcendent version pulls out all the stops: the creaminess of the mascarpone, the gentle bitterness of the cocoa, the hint of rum. I cannot resist it. This is the reward you deserve after a hard week at work, the “little something sweet” you crave while on a date, the dessert the gods serve when they welcome you home.
In one place, you’re getting Atlanta’s best pizza … and one of Atlanta’s best desserts.
And almost no one knows about it. So hurry up, beat the crowds, get to Ribalta, and order what I tell you to: “Pizza in pala ciliegino with Italian sausage and spicy salami added” — and save room for dessert.