Ashely and Adrian Arcuri came to Memphis several years ago on a work project team. They liked it so well that when the project was over they stayed. They chose Collierville as a good place to settle with their family.
Coming from five generations of Italian pizza makers, it seemed to them that the area was also the perfect place to set up “a true Neapolitan pizza” restaurant.
Neapolitans are very picky about their pizza. There is even an organization, “Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana,” (Association of True Neapolitan Pizza) that sets pizza standards such as dough ingredients and pizza size and thickness. And they must be baked in a wood-fired domed oven.
The Arcuris follow all the rules. The oven, a 6,000-pound dome, was handmade near Naples of Vesuvian lava stone and shipped here. It took several weeks to get it installed and covered with the tiles needed to help retain the heat.
The only fuel used to heat the oven is oak wood, or occasionally walnut or fruitwoods. There’s no gas cheater-starter in this oven. Once it’s fired up, it gets so hot that the pizza will cook in around 90 seconds.
On our first visit, we were greeted by a young man who asked if we’d been there before. Since we hadn’t, we got a brief lecture on the oven and the pizza style.
There is a fairly lengthy list of specialty pizzas, along with the Neapolitan standards of Pizza Margherita (with San Marzano tomato, fresh mozzarella and fresh basil), Pizza Marinara (with crushed San Marzano tomatoes, garlic and oregano — no cheese) and Pizza Bianca (with fresh mozzarella, garlic, oregano, olive oil and sea salt — no tomatoes).
My companion chose the Pizza Oliva, with San Marzano tomatoes, spicy salami, kalamata olives, fresh mozzarella and fresh basil. I ordered the Wood Fired Chicken Sandwich.
The pizza could not have been better. The bottom was firm but not crisp. The edges had the little bits of charred places and the whole pizza had the flavor that only comes from a real wood-burning pizza oven. My sandwich was also delicious. It came on house-made ciabatta bread, with provolone cheese, roasted red bell peppers and pesto mayonnaise.
The problem was that the pizza came out well before the sandwich did. Since we were going to share, it wasn’t a problem.
On another occasion I went with a friend for lunch. The weekday lunch special is a great deal. For $5.99, you get a small pizza (one of the three standards) with a side salad. We got the Bianca and the Margherita. Although the menu lists the size as 5 inches, both were a good bit bigger.
My friend got the house salad, fresh spring greens with shredded carrot, grape tomatoes and a good balsamic vinaigrette. I got the Caesar salad, crisp romaine with a dressing that while lemony, fresh and delicious, lacked the assertive anchovy and garlic of a traditional Caesar dressing.
On yet another occasion, we were a group of five. One ordered the Wood Fired sausage, pepper and onion sandwich. The rest ordered pizza. On the blackboard outside they listed “deep-fried pizza.” That just sounded weird to me so we ordered the Bacon Ranch Pizza that way. They briefly deep-fry the crust and then top it and finish it in the oven. It was better than I expected, with a very crispy crust. But I think I’ll stick to the usual kind.
The pizzas that evening lived up to my recommendations, and the sandwich was as good an Italian sausage sandwich as you can get. Once again, all the pizzas were out well before the sandwich came. Fortunately, we were again a sharing group, so for us it wasn’t a major issue.
It’s a little hard to decide what star value to give to service in a restaurant like Ciao Baby. On the one hand, you order at the counter, take a number, and beverages, except for wine, are all self-serve. On the other hand, every employee we encountered was pleasant, and as one or the other would walk by the table would ask “Do you need anything?” Or “Can I refill your tea for you?”
Ashely Arcuri likes to make sure that you’re happy with your pizza. Her husband is a pleasant fellow too, making small talk at the tables where it was welcomed.
I later asked him about the sandwich situation, which is a real service issue. He said he is aware of it, and is planning on getting another oven to help alleviate the time difference.
The two salads mentioned are the only ones on the menu, although you are invited to build your own from anything on the pizza table, with your choice of dressing. You could put together a pretty good full-meal salad that way.
Desserts are all made in-house. When I went for lunch, my friend and I split a cannoli. The shell is a flaky pizzelle cookie, made and rolled in house. The filling was smoother and creamier than any I’d had, made with mascarpone and house-made ricotta.
When we went with the group we shared an order of bread pudding. Oh, wow. It was warm and perfectly spiced, and the big scoop of rich vanilla ice cream and dollop of whipped cream didn’t hurt a bit.
In fact, almost everything is made in-house. No big bags of preshredded mozzarella: all the mozzarella used is freshly made. I’m hoping someday they’ll sell it, since there are so few places in town that sell real fresh mozzarella. It’s only fresh if it’s made the same day you eat it.
They have the standard soda fountain beverages and there’s a cooler with an interesting beer selection, bottled water and imported soft drinks. There’s a small wine list, with three reds and three whites available by the bottle, all priced at $24, and a pinot grigio and merlot available by the glass for $6. There’s also sangria served by the pitcher or half pitcher.
A caveat: This is not your standard delivery-type pizza. There’s no deep-dish pan pizza, no piled deep sauce or cheese. But if you’ve been to Italy and had pizza there, you will recognize the real thing.
Address: 890 West Poplar, Suite 1
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Reviewer’s choice: Wood-Grilled chicken sandwich ($8.50), Pizza Margherita ($8.50), Pizza Oliva ($9.50), Ricotta Pizza ($11.50), cannoli ($4.50).
Alcohol: Wine and beer