Pizza is best served straight from the oven. But instead of going to the source, our warped society has engineered frozen pizzas packaged in materials that replicate the charring effect of a traditional wood-fired oven when it is prepared inside of a microwave. The hubris. However, Joe Nunner and his Milford pizzeria will have you thinking twice about nuking your pie.
Tucked away in the Cincinnati suburbs, Joe’s Pizza Napoli reaffirms faith in the Old World — in the value of utilizing traditional methods to prepare a meal — and it is a worth-the-drive dining destination no matter where you live in the city.
The restaurant is 1,500 square feet, seats 39 diners and has a patio just begging for some nice spring weather. When you walk into the eatery your eyes are immediately drawn to the massive tiled pizza oven, which Nunner chose to have built in the semblance of Mount Vesuvius. The oven is a symbol of home and family; it’s the centerpiece of the kitchen, which is where food is prepared. Food is life. So, the oven holds hefty symbolic significance in our metaphor-starved brains.
The oven reaches around 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit in the dome, and the floor of the chamber maintains a temperature of around 750 degrees. It uses ash and oak for fuel, both dense hardwoods that burn hot and steady. A pizza is perfectly cooked in around five minutes.
The oven was built in Naples, which is where Nunner strives to source as many of his ingredients as possible. His inventory purchasing prioritizes Naples first, the rest of Italy second, and local produce and meats are the natural decision for all remaining practical purposes.
“I’ve always cooked my entire life,” Nunner says. But before Joe’s, it was difficult to cook throughout the week because he traveled between 14 different states as the regional sales manager for Tubelite Inc., big in the sign industry.
“I’d leave Monday morning and come back Friday night — when I got home, to relax I’d cook. Pizza was a weekly thing. I have an oven in my backyard, a smaller version of that,” he says and motions to Vesuvius.
Once he was ready to wrap up his career in the sign industry, Nunner knew he wanted to sell pizza but wasn’t quite sure how to best approach the venture.
“We’d cook for family, friends, a small bit of catering. I’d always wanted to open my own place and I was thinking ‘food truck’ as something I could do on weekends. Cater, get into the business slowly,” he says. “Then this place opened up, it used to be a yogurt shop. I thought it was just the perfect space and quite frankly, it was a lot less risk than a food truck financially. With a food truck, I’d have to rent commercial space to prep, to store all the food and make all the food. We’re making 200 dough balls a day. Then there’s the food truck cost, then building it out and the oven. It seemed like a lower risk here.”
The dining area is simply and elegantly arrayed. There’s an overarching aesthetic charm that makes you feel like you’re sitting outside, in part because of the corrugated metal roof over the kitchen, the fireplace filled top to bottom with stacked logs and, above the hearth, an image of Mount Vesuvius.
Next to the oven are several different peels, which are the long-handled paddle-like implements used to insert and adjust the pizza in the blistering hot chamber. One is used specifically to move wood and spent flour on the oven floor, and one is the pizza loader. The wood peel never touches pizza and the pizza peel never touches wood.
Nunner wanted to go about this whole pizza business the right way, so he was certified by Vera Pizza Napoletana, a group of Italian pizza makers who ensure anyone that claims they’re making Neapolitan-style pizza is doing so authentically. See, Naples has strict guidelines for how pizza is made in their traditional style — 100-percent wood fired, certain ingredients, certain procedures.
The characteristics of Neapolitan pizza include hand-crushed San Marzano tomatoes; mozzarella cheese; a dough comprised of water, fresh yeast, flour (Caputo, a very fine 00 grit in this case); and salt. The hydration level on Joe’s pizza is about 60 percent. Everything is made fresh every day and Nunner is proud not to have a freezer or a microwave anywhere in the kitchen.
“Some people would say, ‘I can’t believe you’re giving out your dough recipe’ but I think pizza guys are an open book. I’ll tell you how I make anything,” he says.
Even the tap list has a taste of Italy. Moretti Beer is a light pilsner with a fresh, clean taste that pairs well with everything on the menu. Especially pizza.
We’ve all enjoyed pizza and beer countless times, but how often have we been able to pair an Italian beer with our Italian dish in this area code? Sure, there’s an abundance of wines readily available from Italy, but the country’s beer selection is not nearly as prevalent, making this pizzeria especially satisfying. Nunner says that Birra Moretti sells twice as much as the local options from Mt. Carmel and March First, though they’re some of his favorites in the state. Of course, there are wine and domestic beers available as well.
One 12-inch pizza yields eight slices. On our table was a Roma pizza with sausage and pepperoni from Columbus-based Ezzo Sausage Co. The pepperoni cup and char perfectly on Joe’s pizza after their time in the oven. The dough was thin, but not overly crisp despite the beautiful coloration from the fire, and the cheese was flavorful and held a wonderful texture. Along with the pizza, we ordered a caprese salad: the cherry tomatoes were perfectly dressed in olive oil and sliced basil and the kitchen was generous with the mozzarella balls.
Along with his masterful pizzas (both red and white varieties), there are green salads, calzones, meatballs and cannelloni. No pasta yet, though Nunner’s been asked for it countless times.
“We want to get this place under our belt, perfected. We have a lot of people asking about pasta, but I want to make sure we get this,” he motions to the pizza in the oven, “done right. But expansions are definitely in the works.”
Joe’s Pizza Napoli recently won multiple honors in CityBeat’s Best Of Cincinnati reader’s poll, including Best Under the Radar Restaurant and Best East Side Pizza Joint. Nunner credits the pizzeria’s success to his wife, Angie, his team’s hard work, support from family and friends and, of course, repeat diners.
For any leftovers, there’s an incredibly thoughtful note attached to your pizza box: instructions on how to best reheat your pizza. Not surprisingly, it’s got to go back into the oven. Put your slices in the cold oven on a cookie sheet or pizza stone, close the door and then set the temperature to 375 degrees. Once the oven reaches temp, your slices are ready. As mentioned before, pizza is best served straight from the oven.
Joe’s Pizza Napoli, 507 Chamber Drive, Milford, joespizzanapoli.com