This tweet from @kiawe_fire says it all: “Dough is not right today ,,, so I’m not serving pizza!!! Sorry ill b back 2morrow.” That’s the twalias of Alejandro Briceño, former Nobu Waikiki pastry chef turned pizzaiolo. Instead of deconstructing shave ice and performing chocolate alchemy for one of the world’s most prestigious celeb-chef chains (Briceño’s Nobu desserts were stellar), he’s now baking pies—the Neapolitan kind. And that kind is all about the dough, which he happens to make from Caputo flour—”la farina di Napoli”—imported from Italy, and known internationally as the flour to use to make pizza.
Neapolitan pizza has become a small global movement, with a certifying body called the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. To make true Neapolitan pizza you need to have a fervor for fresh ingredients, and a high standard of execution. Like skiing, making these pies seems easy to get started (ingredients are few), but takes ages and hard work to perfect (precise measurements—which can be affected by weather, quality ingredients, dough-rising time, etc).
Briceño has that fervor. “I love pizza,” he says helplessly, in that same tone your friend who is dating a headcase uses when you ask incredulously, “Why are you going out with him?” He is spellbound, to the extent that he is working 17-hour days seven days a week.
Briceño, 29, grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, which has a strong mix of Spanish and Italian culture (like Buenos Aires). “We had serrano ham and prosciutto in my home,” he says. He left that home when he was 16, attended culinary school in Barcelona (where he learned how to make artisanal chocolate under celeb pastry chef Pascal Cherance) and worked in Milan (where his aunt was a staffer at the Venezuelan consulate). Then he ditched Europe for Miami, where he got a job at once-hot Asian fusion spot Tantra and Afterglo, where the executive chef was Florida kitchen star Michael Schwartz (who now cooks at his own farm-to-table place, Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink.)
One day Briceño got a call from someone who had tried his desserts at Afterglo. “He told me, ‘I’ve got a restaurant in Las Vegas if you want to work with me,'” explains Briceño. That restaurant turned out to be Nobu, and he spent two and a half years there. He is such a good pastry chef that Nobu Inc. sent him to be part of the opening crews for Nobu Mexico City, Nobu San Diego, and—lucky for us—Nobu Waikiki. He likes Honolulu so much that when Nobu wanted him to go back to Vegas, Briceño decided to throw in the corporate towel and make pizza.
Here’s the kicker: His venue is nightspot V Lounge, the Kona Street bar owned by the young impresarios behind Vertical Junkies. At the moment you can’t get pizza until 10pm. But that’s about to change: Starting Oct. 19, V Lounge pizza oven will be open for business Monday-Saturday, 5pm until the dough runs out. Oct 19 is also when Briceño starts violating one of the AVPN rules—he will start offering take-out.
My first brush with Neapolitan pizza was in New York more than a decade ago, when Pizza 45 opened and made a big deal about being VPN-certified and having a wood-burning oven. Briceño follows the artisanal rules religiously. In the tiny kitchen is the only wood-burning oven on O‘ahu (now that Pasta Basta has closed). You can feel the 800ºF temperature emanating from four feet away, enveloping you in a campfire warmth. Perfect little domes of dough rise and rest in stacked white plastic trays. Aside from importing flour, he also brings in from Italy the stuff that doesn’t have a local equivalent—bufalo mozzarella, pancetta di San Daniele. Sauce is made from canned San Marzano tomatoes—Briceño reduces the juice and adds a little oregano and uncooked paste made from the tomatoes. Then he sources top local ingredients for toppings. He works solo, from sweeping the floor to pulling the mozzarella. He kneads the dough by hand—there’s no mixer in this kitchen. “I’m tired but I love it,” he says.
For those who grew up on Pizza Hut and Domino’s, the raves about Briceño’s Neapolitan pie may be a head scratcher. Gone are the sweet sauces, sweet crust (that comes in like 23 different styles) and processed cheeses and meats cooked in an electric oven. In their place is a yielding, chewy crust, erupting with blisters that are sometimes blackened from the intense wood heat. It has a mineral, yeasty, almost sour taste, a taste that seems ancient, an enhancement of the wheat from which is is made. On top of that, it has a hint of smokiness—Briceño uses kiawe wood harvested from Ma‘o Farms, as it clears its fields. On the classic margherita pizza, the mozzarella melts to a verging-on-liquid silkiness that you don’t get with Polly-o, melding with the sauce, crust, and, intermittently, bits of fresh basil. It’s pizza—and you feel like you’re eating stuff right from the earth, not something that was produced with chemicals and machines.
The Prima has that classic Italian pizza topping—a luscious runny egg—along with thin strips of pancetta, oyster mushrooms, mozzarella, parsley, thyme and truffle oil. It tastes of the earth, and is wonderfully earthy, thanks to the fungi flavors. I will order it again and again. On top of all this, the pizzas are outrageously cheap considering the work that goes into them and where the ingredients come from. I just hope the V Lounge boys expand the offerings of red to go with the pies—they’re crying out for a short well-edited list of vino.
Briceño isn’t the first chef to go from haute cuisine to pizza purity. Mathieu Palombino headed up the BLT Fish kitchen in New York before opening lauded Williamsburg hipster pizzeria Motorino, part of New York’s new wave of artisanal pie joints. (Former New York Times restaurant reviewer Frank Bruni did a great video overview of the newish crop this past summer.) To Briceño, it’s not a step down. “If you don’t go to the basics, you don’t go anywhere,” he says. And even though he worked at Tantra and Nobu, he adds, “I didn’t grow up with much Asian culture. I love Japanese food but…I need this—the good pasta, pizza.” And to get it he has to make his own.
Honolulu chefs are already alighting at V Lounge. Briceño’s former colleague, Nobu hot-food chef Lindsey Ozawa is a regular and new Town cook (and former Chef Mavro staffer) Mark Noguchi stopped by (and had an epiphany). But what he’s most chuffed about is that Boston Pizza-raised club kids are liking the pies. “We get these young drunk guys going ‘Oh man, this is so good.'” says Briceño. “It’s funny.” Ozawa sees the place almost like a flavor training center to wean local kids off chicken katsu and have them develop a taste for new culinary horizons. On my first visit to V Lounge, Briceño had been producing pizza for five days. In that time the pizzas had sold out every night, and Briceño had received two job offers. Who knows where this little pizzeria-within-a-bar will go in the coming months.
V Lounge, 1349 Kapiolani Blvd (entrance on Kona Street), 955-2640
pizza served Monday-Saturday, 5pm until the dough runs out, $12-$15 for a 12-inch pizza