By Jason Gatsby, TSB Chow Hound
While mulling over restaurant options on an empty stomach, if my friends and family are unable to come to general consensus, there’s always a fallback, and the majority of time that is pizza.
On a recent Wednesday evening at 6:30-ish, some friends and I visited Cavalli’s Pizzeria Napoletana, which was filled with guests as servers scurried amongst the crowd trying to keep up. Patrons entered the restaurant in drovess and servers seemed a bit flustered while maintaining pace. I love the inherent feel of a vibrant restaurant, but only when it’s running efficiently.
The busy pizzeria reminded me of my previous unpleasant experiences at Cavalli’s on Friday or Saturday nights. Enduring long waits and poor service had left a bitter taste in my mouth. Even when seated, I was left pining for the food, which I ordered 30 minutes earlier. (I know it’s not the server’s fault but as my hunger escalates, I couldn’t help but become “hangry.” (Angry due to excessive hunger)
Owners Clara and Paolo Cavalli, brought their adoration of Neapolitan pizza to McKinney in 2007. Cavalli’s is not shy when it comes to bragging rights. The pizzeria has been recognized in Forbes, D Magazine and Zagat as one of the premier restaurants in which to consume a pizza in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Cavalli’s classifies as a VPN pizzeria, or the “Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana.” VPN was created in the 1980’s by the Italian government to make certain that restaurants claiming to offer a Neapolitan Style Pizza must abide by strict rules in order to be classified as VPN certified. Napoli takes their pizza seriously, very seriously.
VPN guidelines include:
1. A Wood-Burning Oven: Pizza Napoletana must be cooked in a wood-fired dome oven operating at roughly 800ºF.
3. Proper Technique: Your pizza dough must be kneaded either by hand, or with a low speed mixer. No mechanical dough shaping is allowed, such as a dough press or rolling pin, and proper pizza preparation. Pizza baking time should not exceed 90 seconds.
Because the pizza cooks relatively quickly, the crust is thin and has a distinctive chew. The wood fired oven creates black blisters so don’t assume that your pizza is burnt. But your pizza should never have excessive marks of charred flour on the bottom of your pie.
While pizza is, and will continue to be, Cavalli’s forte, the restaurant does have an array of other options that are great for sharing. If you have a large group, “Tapas” and salads are great for sharing. “Cavalli’s Favorites” are noted on the menu with an asterisk, but don’t base your decisions solely on a presumed favorite of the restaurant.
The “Pancetta Cavali” ($11) is an “award winning” thick slab of pork belly with a potato puree, Habanero soy glaze, picked onion and scallion. From a balance perspective the components are all there: sweet, salty, acidic, and rich. The pork belly is tender, and well seasoned but it was on the dry side. The soy glaze and onions were delicious, but the puree was lacking depth in flavor and consistency.
Much like pizza, making gnocchi is an art form. Similar to dumplings and most commonly made from potato, flour, eggs, and cheese, the gnocchi should be “pillow” soft. Emphasis on the should because the “Gnocchi con Brie,” ($8) made from sweet potatoes with toasted pumpkin seeds in a brie cream sauce with cranberry balsamic glaze was gummy and tasted of uncooked starch. A hint of cinnamon and the sweetness of the balsamic reduction reminded more of a desert, but it was a nice try at a seasonal dish.
Cavalli’s also offers a “risotto of the day.” Not overly creamy, the rice was well cooked and still had some tooth to it. Consisting of bacon, tomato, and spinach with a bell pepper sauce, the smokiness of the bacon is by far the dominant flavor. While good, I couldn’t eat an entire bowl of the creamy smoked rice on my own, so it was a good thing that I had a group to share with.
Salads are available in either small or large portions. Unless you intend on sharing or eating a salad as an entrée, I recommend the small.
I was thrilled to see a “Panzanella” salad on the menu. Panznella is traditionally a Florentine bread salad with greens, tomatoes, onions, and basil. The Italians would use their stale bread as the primary component and when the salad is dressed, the bread is rehydrated with all the delicious juices of the salad. Unfortunately, there were no juicy pieces of “Rustic Italian Bread,” but instead cooked pizza dough. I love pizza dough but it doesn’t exactly pick up the flavors quite as well.
On the other hand, the “Insalata Nocci,” ($6sm/8.5lg) with marinated beets, goat’s cheese, brandied walnuts, cherry tomatoes, and dressed in champagne vinaigrette was refreshingly sweet. Goat cheese and beets go hand in hand, like “peas and carrots.” If you have an aversion to beets, Cavalli’s seasons them in a sweet marinade to enhance their natural sugars. The salads are a pleasant intermezzo before gorging of the pizzas. (As I tend to do.)
And now for the pizza – the anticipation was killing me. Regardless of how full I am, I will always able to make room for pizza. As a former pizziaolo I would research other pizzerias and consume almost three in one night.
Pizza is one of the most subjective foods amongst diners. With over 17 varieties of pizza on the menu, ranging from $9 to $13.50, Cavalli’s has plenty of options to make most diners happy, but if you intend on sharing, too many choices may be a bad thing. And don’t worry; if there’s not a pizza that appeals to you, there are options, including French fries, to create your own pie.
I always examine the crust and check the bottom of the pizza to see if it is burned or if too much flour was used to stretch the dough. Well cooked, the pizzas were all good but my favorite was the Margherita Extra. “The McKinney” ($13.50) is a Marghertia base topped with salamino, hot capicolla, homemade sausage and basil. Neoplotian pizzas are thin so in this case overabundance of ingredients struggle to stay attached to the pie.
Did I mention you could add French fries as a topping? If you’re feeling crazy, feel free to add some a different kind of fried goodness and indulge in the one ingredient that would make the pizza amazing – an over-easy egg.
If you haven’t tried the pizza at Cavalli’s, I urge you to be a “foodie” and try something new. Take a chance on a pizza where quality is assured by Italian rules and regulations.
Slowing down and finishing off our wine, I embraced the stress-free atmosphere. Cavalli’s is an environment where I can enjoy good pizza, and converse with my friends over a glass of wine. Overall, an enjoyable experience, but I think I’ll just stick to their pizza.
Top: Pizza Margherita Extra
Middle: Pork Belly
Bottom: Insalata Nocci
Overall: 2 and a half stars
Food: 2 stars
Pizza: 3 stars
Beverages: 2 stars
Service: 3 stars
Atmosphere: 2 and a half
FOUR STARS = Extraordinary; THREE STARS = Excellent; TWO STARS = Good; ONE STAR = Fair; NO STARS = Poor
$ = Inexpensive: entrees $10 and under; $$ = Moderate: $11-$17; $$$ = Expensive: $18-$24; $$$$ = Very Expensive: more than $25