What’s better than pizza and beer? Great pizza and beer. That’s what, among other offerings, you’ll get at Pizza Bene!, Ben Butler’s gourmet, Napoletano pizzeria at 423 Main Street in Placerville.
The difference between good pizza and amazing pizza is in the quality and freshness of ingredients. Butler spent 25 years dreaming about opening a restaurant and his careful attention to every detail shows it. From the warm Tuscan gold and burgundy paint on the walls, a match to the tile columns outside, to the carefully chosen local wines and eight draft beers, to the Italian music playing softly in the background and fresh flowers in vases at each table, to the scrumptious pizzas, salads and calzones, Butler has pinpointed quality.
Pizza Bene! is not an arcade and soccer team kind of place. The atmosphere is upscale and the food is delicious, made from scratch daily with a few, simple, high-quality ingredients. Napoletano-style pizza is thin crust pizza made with twice milled Italian flour and cooked at high temperatures in a brick pizza oven. The imported Caputo flour Butler uses is GMO free and, in combination with the pizza oven, produces a soft, chewy crust with a crisp bottom — utterly impossible to resist, even for non-crust eaters.
One of Pizzas Bene!’s most popular pizzas is the Portobello mushroom and bacon pizza using thick slices of Portobello mushrooms marinated in extra virgin olive oil and sea salt. The signature Napoletano pizza is the Margherita — tomato sauce, sea salt, high-quality creamy mozzarella, fresh basil and extra virgin olive oil. There aren’t a lot of ingredients, so Butler makes sure every one of them is the best.
“If I couldn’t have the best, I wouldn’t do it,” he said of the restaurant. “You can have mediocre food anywhere.”
The signature salads come in both large and side salad size, but both have the same luscious ingredients: Romaine lettuce, tomatoes, olives, chopped walnuts, blue cheese crumbles, pepperonici, red onion and house-made croutons. “I marinate sourdough bread in extra virgin olive oil and a little sea salt and then roast it in the oven so that the croutons are crisp and chewy,” said Butler. One of the best things about the salad is Butler’s housemade dressing — extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and sea salt. “It’s my own creation — simple and flavorful,” said Butler. “People are used to prepared dressings but we make it when we serve it and people love it.”
Even the tomato sauce that tops the pizzas was carefully chosen — simply fresh tomatoes with a little extra virgin olive oil, bought from a company in California that seals the interior of the can so that the metal doesn’t change the flavor of the tomatoes. “A lot of people don’t like tomato sauce because it’s too acidic,” said Butler, “but this has very little acidity and has a very fresh, naturally sweet, tomato flavor. Even people who don’t like pizza are eating and loving it.”
Walking by, early in the morning, you may find yourself following your nose back to Pizza Bene! as the scent of fresh roasted garlic cloves fills the air. “We roast them every morning,” said Butler, “and it is an irresistible smell.” Fresh roasted garlic cloves top the “Garlic and More Garlic” pizza, which is made with minced garlic in the crust, that fantastic tomato sauce and creamy mozzarella.
Napoleanos take their pizza seriously and there is even an association to certify that things like pizza ovens and pizzas meet the strict Napoletano standards. Butler’s Marra Forni pizza oven, “the Ferrari of pizza ovens,” is built with refractory bricks made from the lava fields of Mount Vesuvius.
“The bricks really retain the heat inside,” said Butler, “allowing for a crisp bottom crust. You can touch the outside of the oven and it doesn’t heat up the kitchen, because the bricks don’t transfer the heat, they retain it. I’m tickled pink with it.”
Three years ago, Butler and his son rode Segways into San Francisco’s Little Italy and stopped at Tony’s Pizzeria for lunch. “He served Napoletano pizza and we were in awe. He’s a rock star in the pizza business; the first American to win the Pizza Making Championship.” Butler, who had sold his heavy equipment business in 2010, thought this was just the kind of pizza that Placerville needed.
After much research into authentic Napoletano pizza making, dough dynamics, access to authentic, high-quality ingredients, the best Italian pizza ovens and a lot of conversation with his friend and local chef Tony Riviello, Butler started looking for a site for his restaurant.
“I looked for two and a half years for a site for a restaurant with all the components I wanted,” said Butler. “This place (near the Belltower) has been a restaurant since the 1930s when it was Max Jumbo’s.” He found a red and white striped awning from the restaurant’s Max Jumbo days in the attic. “It is in great shape and I’m going to put it back up.”
Butler’s trying to import a little authentic Napoletano food culture to Placerville where he has lived for 27 years. “It’s very fulfilling to me when people try it and are in awe of the food. I work about 15 hours a day, but I love it. Napoletano pizza is really taking off everywhere.” Butler said he makes his pizza in just the same way as Da Michele in Naples, arguably the best pizzeria in Italy.
Only open since April 4, Butler has a master menu, nine months in the making. He’s been thinking about this for a long time, remember. Every few weeks, he adds to his daily menu from the master work, making sure the offerings are perfected before more are added.
“This is only the beginning,” said Butler. “We are going to add signature pasta dishes, Italian appetizers, fresh bread that we make here and five decadent desserts.” He also plans to add some Italian wines to the bar and a kids’ menu. A family night where kids can make their own pizza and watch it being cooked in the brick pizza oven is also in the works.
Pizza Bene! is open seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturdays. It has both take-out and eat-in menus. Call 530-303-3415 for more information.
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.