The impressive divot in the concrete floor of Il Lazzarone’s River Market location is a birthmark: The spot where Erik Borger and a buddy dropped a nearly 7,000-pound Neapolitan pizza oven during its installation with a crane.
Before opening the doors at 412 Delaware St. this month, Borger pointed a digital micrometer at the white-oak fire lit to season the Acunto Mario Forni oven. Orange flames of up to 1,200 degrees licked the sides of hand-cast bricks made of soil taken from the base of Mount Vesuvius.
There are no control knobs or hidden electronic components. Borger employs a long-handled peel to shift pizzas a quarter turn, rotating up to 10 pizzas in succession, or one every 1.25 seconds. The spinning motion creates a crust speckled with char (known as leopardization) and the gentlest kiss of smoke to caramelize ingredients — all in an astounding 90 seconds or less.
Borger’s pizza obsession started soon after he moved from New York to St. Joseph as a teenager. Then, after years of experimentation on an oven in his garage, the former exercise physiologist knew he wanted to start a restaurant so he could eat Neapolitan pizza every day.
In Naples, the government strictly regulates ingredients and techniques, as certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, which translated is the True Neapolitan Pizza Association.
“Anybody can make it their own by putting a spin on it, but I’d rather re-create something that is not available here,” says Borger, whose St. Joseph location became only the 506th member worldwide. He plans to certify his Kansas City location as well.
Caputo “00” grade flour, yeast, sea salt and water are stretched into a thin, pliable crust that serves as a minimalist canvas. Brussels sprouts, salami and eggs are a few of the toppings, but Borger’s personal favorite is dressed with nothing more than DOP-certified (protected designation of origin) San Marzano tomatoes that have been run through a food mill and blended with olive oil, sea salt, basil and oregano.
The classic margherita adds house-made fresh buffalo mozzarella. But the high water content in the cheese and sauce tend to make Neapolitan pizzas “knife-and-fork food,” although the wait staff will slice the pie if the customer insists.
“You really can’t pick it up, because it’s soupy,” Borger says, “but it’s supposed to be. It actually flows, like molten lava.”