By David Danzig
It’s not uncommon for a new restaurant to make an impact on the local dining scene. Sometimes, a new cuisine momentarily captures the scene’s collective imagination. Sometimes, a notable new interior design garners buzz. Sometimes, a new dish strikes a chord and causes both patrons and local chefs to sit up and take notice. But in most cases, the effect is like tossing a pebble into a small pond; there are waves, but the waves are relatively small, disappearing quickly.
When Antico Pizza opened its doors in Home Park near Georgia Tech in 2009, the effect was more like dropping a Maserati from a crane into the pond. Not only did its waves surge across Atlanta, they even crossed the Atlantic Ocean, landing on the shores of southern Italy. As legend has it, Antico’s creator, Giovanni “Gio” Di Palma, spent many of his young adult years searching for his calling before making a pilgrimage to Italy to trace his family roots. After stints cooking at several villages in Naples, he landed in Cimitile where he tapped into familial connections, granting him access to the greatest pizza-makers in the world. It was only a matter of time before he learned the chemistry of Neapolitan “mother” dough—the blending of specific flours essential to the perfect crust. And when he had completed his training as an Old-World pizzaiolo, he set his compass for Atlanta to create pizza that would change the world.
In an industrial, nondescript building near Georgia Tech, Di Palma built his pizza empire from scraps and stones. But it became something transcendent, something addictive, something emotional. While the exterior was not much to look at, the inside held the secrets to the perfect pie. Out of three $15,000-ovens that were brought over from Italy brick by brick came what many believed to be the best pizza in the world. Within weeks of the 2009 opening of Antico Pizza, lines formed around the block and word spread through town faster than a high-speed train. So loud was the buzz that Antico began to lure not only celebrities, but nationally known importers and internally-renowned pizza experts. On a daily basis, upwards of 1,000 pizzas bubbled in the restaurant’s ovens—a dizzying array of well-plied dough and fresh toppings. The consensus—even from the masters across the pond—was unanimous: This was pizza unlike any other. Even Zagat, the world’s food bible, rated Antico as the number-one place for all food in the city of Atlanta (tied with ritzy Bones and Aria) and gave it one of the highest scores for pizza in the U.S.
But Di Palma’s genius has not been confined to pizza. With the Home Park neighborhood suddenly hopping, Di Palma gobbled up several other parcels around Antico, creating Atlanta’s own Little Italia with Old-World concepts at the core: Gio’s Chicken Amalfitano, Cafe Gio, and the seasonal Bar Amalfi. In short, the “Antico Phenomenon,” as it has been dubbed, has been transformative to the dining scene both in Atlanta and beyond. It’s a magnet for just about every A-lister who comes through Atlanta— from movie and TV stars (Paul Rudd, Will Farrell, Jon Favreau, and Conan O’Brien), to celebrity chefs (Kevin Rathbun, Emeril, and Morimoto), to athletes (Tom Brady), musicians (Usher, Jay Z, Jeezy, Ludacris, and TI), and politicians (Mayor Kasim Reed and Andrew Young). In fact, just two days before this past Valentine’s Day, Selena Gomez popped into Antico. After savoring a delicious pie (“It was the best pizza ever!”), Gomez insisted on going behind the counter to get her hands dirty with Di Palma. She handed her phone to her manager for an Instagram shot, and the next thing Antico knew, a photo of Gio and Selena shot out to 61 million Facebook followers, 23 million Instagram followers, and 27 million Twitter followers. That’s over 110 million impressions, and the sort of instant notoriety that only happens at Antico.
When world-wide events loom large, Di Palma is known for shutting down the entire street—or at least throwing an amazing party. It happened when the World Cup was raging in Brazil, and it happened when Christmas rolled around in 2014 and he made his own snow and brought in Canadian reindeer for larger-than-life festivities.When the Kentucky Derby hits this spring, he’s planning on having horses in real paddocks outside the restaurant. All of this is just the beginning of the maestro who is Giovanni Di Palma. Luckily, we were able to track him down and chat about some of his history making past, and where he’s launching Little Italia in the future. The venue for our conversation? None other than the intimate environs of his latest venture, Ventisette—a private dining haven in Little Italia that seats only 27 people. Bent over a small Illy cappuccino with perfectly frothed foam, Di Palma regaled us with stories past and present.
DiningOut: So, let us in on the secret. What makes your pizza so special?
Di Palma: There are two ways you can compete in business—price and quality. I am in the quality business. Pizza has been price-driven for 50 years, and I think Antico has changed the pizza culture in the way Starbucks changed coffee culture. Before Starbucks, coffee was $.50. Now, it’s $4 for a venti. The game-changing moment was when everyone realized that they were drinking stale coffee.
So everyone’s been eating stale pizza? It’s not really a direct comparison. The real difference is my flour. No one has my flour. It’s a blend that I started in a lab in Naples called Antico Napoli made from Manitoba wheat grown in Canada. It’s a secret guarded like the recipe for Coke—people will shoot you if you go into the lab. I can say that it’s a special mix of hard wheats, soft wheats, and spring wheats, and there’s no wheat from America. Those iconic amber waves of grain? Yeah, they’re no good for pizza—just hard bread.
Was there an actual “eureka” moment when you came up with your recipe? The big breakthrough happened when I was working in a pizzeria in a town called Cimitile (the hometown of Al Capone and my personal hero, Vince Lombardi) with a pizza maestro named Luigi. Luigi called the local flour mill and asked them to mill four bags of flour for the next day’s pizza. In the morning, a truck pulled up with four fresh bags of flour. That doesn’t happen in America. Here, pizza guys call Sysco. They get the flour two months before each order and store it in a warehouse until the sale. If you get more than 15-percent humidity in that warehouse, you compromise the flour. Plus, the longer it sits in the bag, the harder it becomes. They didn’t even know what 00 flour was until five years ago.
So how do you get around the fresh flour issue? That was my challenge from day one. I am the only one in the world who ships flour over to America in climate and humidity-controlled containers. I invented it. No one else does it. So when you opened Antico in Atlanta about five years ago, you were pretty sure that you were on to something special? When I started, I already knew the extent of my knowledge and skill. I felt like I was a young Michael Jordan who hadn’t been drafted. I did my research and my training, and I was ready for the phenomenon that would become Antico. Truthfully, the best pizza in the world is the one that you love. But you also have to love making it. You have to be passionate. It’s exhausting to do it right—110 pounds of wet dough that you have to lift out of the bowl, throw over your shoulder, and then hand kneed, cut into 100 balls, and weigh. We do that 12-14 times a day.
You opened your second Antico location in Alpharetta at the new Avalon, a $1.4-million project. Right out of the gate, you had lines around the block and hour-plus waits. Did you ever have any doubt that the suburbanites would “get” Antico? I started as an unknown in Atlanta. I knew what I had and I knew what I knew. But you always have some doubt. When I saw the lines stretching down the street, it was an obvious indicator it was going to work. The second indicator came when 50-percent of the people ordered without seeing the menu—they already knew it. To me, that says we’ve created a culture like Starbucks. They knew exactly how to order. I was stunned—it was like reliving this whole dream all over again. I couldn’t believe it. Avalon numbers have already almost caught up to the original Westside location.
Celebrity sightings have been a big piece of the Antico phenomenon. How did Antico ever become such a magnet for famous people? Fortuitous timing. Believe me, I wasn’t trying to be a hotspot. The last thing I wanted was for an Old-World pizzeria to be trendy. But Atlanta is the Hollywood of the East now, and lots of celebrities come here because they know Antico is number one.
Yet you certainly seem very comfortable palling around with celebs. When I meet a celebrity for the first time, eight out of 10 say to me that they have been eating the pizza for a month and they had to meet me. It’s what’s served on a lot of movie sets because it’s the best, and that’s what celebrities want. That happened with “Anchor Man 2.” Paul Rudd and Steve Carrell had been coming in quite a bit and eventually, Will Farrell came by, too. He was wearing a flowered Hawaiian shirt, Bermuda shorts, and high-top Chuck Taylors. I walked right up to him and said, “Mr. Burgundy, we have a table for you in the back.” He said, “Gio, give me a San Gennaro!” He ate the whole thing.
Is there a lot of stress being Giovanni Di Palma? You’re sort of a lightning rod. These days, I don’t have stress, I have adrenaline. I remember one time early on when I had orders for 90 pizzas stacking up and only enough dough to make 40. That was stress. Or when lines ran all the way down the street, as far as the eye could see. That was the night we found out that people were actually scalping our pizza. Guys were cutting in line, paying $20 for a pie and selling it for $35— and that was the first month we were open.
Given your success, what do you think is going to be your legacy? My defining moment was the day I realized I was the first man to create an entire Little Italy—and the first Little Italy in the South. What guy has ever had the chance to build an “old” neighborhood in a big city and create this kind of culture and experience? That’s my legacy. And I want it to spread. I want pizza Napoletana to spread all over the USA, guided by those who want to make it right and are not just trying to be like me. I make the Stradivarius of pizza, but I do it because I’m passionate about the real thing. If you can produce that, then you’ll be successful— and I’ll be the first in line to be your partner or help you in any way I can.
Speaking of legacy, do you feel as though you’ve started any trends in the pizza world? Definitely. One example: Calabrian peppers. I made those popular. Before me, pizza places were just about crushed red peppers. In fact, one night a girl asked me for a few Calabrian peppers in a cup so I gave some to her. A few minutes later, another person asked me for some. Then another and another. Before you knew it, there was a line to get these peppers. Then it hit me—put them on the pizza. No one had done that before. That led to the Diavola pizza and, eventually, the San Gennaro pizza. It was a game changer. The San Gennaro just won top honors on the Food Network’s “Best Pizza Ever” episode. They said it was the “best party in your mouth in America.” Since then, those pizzas have been copied all over the country. Most top chefs in Atlanta have been inspired by my pizza, using Calabrian peppers, Castelvetrano olives, 00 flour, San Marzano tomatoes, and Acunto pizza ovens. That’s the Antico effect. And those peppers? The volume that my supplier in Calabria ships ramped up from 40 pallets a year to upwards of 5,000. He even told me, “Gio, you changed everything for my family’s business, and we’ve been doing this for 70 years.”
Life-changing indeed. So what’s next? Who knows. This whole thing is a dream beyond fulfilled. You can’t script this. All I wanted was to have a nice house, a nice car, and money to pay for my son’s schooling. I had more fun when I was just making pizzas at Antico by myself. Now, I’m in the logistics business—I’m an importer, transporter, parking manager, and security supervisor. I don’t even know how many hats I wear on a daily basis. Some day, though, I am going to open a place called Cento Anni [“a hundred years”] and I’ll make 100 pizzas a day. That’s it. At the end of production, I’ll take a swim in the ocean, drink a glass of wine, and go to bed.