Chow Town

il Lazzarone Pizzeria serves authentic Neapolitan pizza in unexpected place

Erik Borger, owner of il Lazzarone, with a Neapolitan pizza.
Erik Borger, owner of il Lazzarone, with a Neapolitan pizza.

There’s something incongruous about il Lazzarone in St. Joseph.

Not the food, mind you. The Neapolitan pizza that Erik Borger slides in and out of his Italian-made wood-fired brick oven is divine, the golden crust blistered and puffed, simply topped with premium ingredients.

It’s the physical space at 1628 Frederick Ave. that throws the first-time visitor a visual curve ball. The sleek black building, once a grungy radiator shop, is juxtaposed on a block with more pedestrian, less sexy neighbors.

A red-and-white sign hanging over the door hovers like a bright punctuation mark on the otherwise nondescript street. Large glass windows emblazoned with the words “Neapolitan Pizzeria” frame diners inside communing over food and drink amid a hip urban buzz.

il Lazzarone shines like a beacon on Frederick Ave. in a Missouri river town famous for the beginning of the Pony Express and the end of Jesse James.

Stepping into the restaurant is like that moment in the “Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy and her entourage emerge from the dark and wild forest to a colorful field of flowers, the Emerald City shimmering in the distance.

You’re on a mission, and that mission is to leave the world behind and immerse yourself in one of the world’s oldest and most powerful traditions, thanks to the chefs of Naples, Italy: eating pizza.

Forget the fact that you’re in St. Joseph, Mo., not exactly a stomping ground for food cognoscenti.

Borger, a bona fide member of the unofficial Neapolitan pizza fan club, wants to change that. He’s a pied piper, a Field of Dreams food-driven architect: build it and they will come. The curious and the loyal customers and the fellow entrepreneurs wanting to ply their craft in a town hungry to escape the chains of corporate-owned restaurants.

On a recent Friday evening, I needed to escape the chaos of home remodeling and soothe frayed nerves.

“Let’s drive to St. Joseph and visit il Lazzarone,” I suggested to my partner, Mr. G.

An hour later as we perch on stools at the reclaimed wood bar to watch Borger and his merry band of pizza napoletana evangelists scurry about, the place is hopping.

Jacob Pasley shapes pucks of dough into irregular rounds, dressing them with imported cheese and tomatoes. He and Borger choreograph the transfer of the discs onto a paddle where, within 50 seconds, the pizzas are pulled from the 1,200-degree oven in their fully cooked glory. Servers deliver the piping-hot pies, caprese salads, orders of bruschetta and bottles of craft beer to patrons packing the industrial-chic room and breezy patio.

Borger grew up in New York where he fell in love with the ubiquitous slice of pizza served on street corners, in mom-and-pop joints and even at the school cafeteria. When he and his family moved to St. Joseph, the 14-year-old started washing dishes at a restaurant owned by a chef who graduated from the CIA in Hyde Park. Eventually Borger worked his way up to sous chef and, at age 19, decided to leave the food industry and pursue a degree in exercise physiology.

“After getting my masters, I worked in healthcare, developing wellness programs,” Borger said. “But I never forgot that pizza from my childhood, and six years ago I started experimenting with different pizza dough.”

Borger purchased a small army of commercial ovens and stashed them in his garage, testing to see which cooked pizza better. He became obsessed with Neapolitan pizza, visiting online forums where fellow fanatics discuss the finer points of dough hydration and salting pies. He and wife Lesley dipped their toes into the Neapolitan pizza mecca, Motorino, in New York City’s East Village.

“It was magical,” Borger said. “After that, I found a wood oven at auction, and set it up in my backyard and practiced pizza-making.”

In 2009 Borger scouted buildings in Kansas City for a potential Neapolitan pizzeria. He fell in adoration with a River Market space, even hiring an architect to draw plans. But Borger felt a tug to return to St. Joseph and open his dream concept in a culinary-starved community.

“I wanted to help facilitate change and growth here,” he said. “Kansas City has so much good food. St. Joe needed this more than KC.”

Borger found the old radiator shop on Frederick Ave. — the very street he worked on as a teenager — and set about rehabbing. il Lazzarone — named for the poorer class of Neapolitans who were lovers of life — opened quietly on May 24, and the steady stream of customers and accolades since has confirmed Borger’s suspicion.

“People living in St. Joseph like good food, just like people in Kansas City.”

il Lazzarone is affordable, something Borger insisted on when writing his business model. The menu features eight pies, including classic Margherita, Marinara, Bianca and Lazio, along with Americanized Neapolitan recipes, such as a dreamy uovo that features hunks of salami, a dusting of Pecorino Romano, fresh basil and a farm-fresh egg baked into the top of the poofy crust.

Borger adheres to the strict standards set forth by the Italian association that oversees authentic Neapolitan pizza: the dough is four ingredients only — sea salt, Caputo OO pizzeria flour, water and yeast, combined in a spiral fork mixer, rolled out by hand.

Paperwork is in motion for il Lazzarone to be certified as an authentic Neapolitan pizzeria — Borger has to foot the bill to fly an inspector from Italy to St. Joseph.

“Neapolitan pizza is a piece of cultural history that is fiercely preserved and protected,” he explained. “I like that notion; that’s important, just like we promote our barbecue heritage in this region.”

il Lazzarone’s pizzas are cooked in Borger’s second pride and joy (the first being his and Lesley’s 10-month-old daughter): a 6,000-pound oven made by fifth-generation oven maker Italian Acunto Forni Mario is built with bricks sourced from the base of Mt. Vesuvius. The huge piece of equipment was shipped to Missouri and hoisted into the Frederick Ave. space by a giant crane.

“It was emotional, finally opening the doors last month,” Borger admitted, pulling a pizza with perfect black bubbles from the blazing oven.

As a server fetches the pie and delivers it to the Cobb’s — regulars Scott, Mary and kids Sylvie and Xy enjoying a family night on the patio — Borger surveys the room, a smile curling his lips.

Silently, he resumes his ballet with Pasley, creating pizzas for the people, in a most unexpected place in St. Joseph.

Kimberly Winter Stern — also known as Kim Dishes — is an award-winning freelance writer and national blogger from Overland Park and co-host with Chef Jasper Mirabile on LIVE! From Jasper’s Kitchen each Saturday on KCMO 710/103.7FM. She is inspired by the passion, creativity and innovation of chefs, restaurateurs and food artisans who make Kansas City a vibrant center of locavore cuisine.