Proto's Pizzeria Napoletana 

My dinner partner and I sauntered into Proto's Pizzeria Napoletana on 8th Street on a Thursday evening around 6:30 p.m. We were instantly greeted like good friends and were promptly seated.

The restaurant is modern, well-lit but not bitterly bright and is tastefully appointed and immaculate. A snazzy brushed-metal bar faces the sidewalk so clientele can people-watch while they chat and sip their drinks.

I'd preselected a few promising dishes from Proto's Web site. The menu does not offer a broad selection; Proto's is a pizzeria, not a typical Italian restaurant. There are six selections in the appetizer/salad section ranging in price from $3.75 to $9.99 (mostly salads) and about 17 Neapolitan-style pizzas from which to choose in three sizes.

Our server, Jodi, was at our table within moments. We ordered a large Caesar salad ($7.99) with white anchovies and two 7-inch pizzas ($8.99 each): an Atomica Pie and a Pontiff Pie.

The salad materialized with two long, triangular slices of thin, crisp bread (Proto's homemade croutons) which we used as serving utensils. The anchovies are a pleasant surprise--not too salty but conveying that undeniable anchovy charm one either loves or detests.

Within a very reasonable time, our pizzas were ready. Do not go to Proto's expecting the usual slab of dough, slathered with sauce and groaning with toppings. The Pontiff is more diminutive than I thought it would be ... not much larger than a circular mouse pad. The crusts of these pies are also the thinnest I've seen, in many ways resembling matzo. But this is Neapolitan-style: thin, bubbly crust, charred edges, San Marzano tomatoes from Italy and whole-milk mozzarella.

The pies' ingredients are sparingly and artfully assembled. There are no willy-nilly chunks of anything. A great deal of care has gone into selecting fine product for Proto's wares--the Wisconsin mozzarella is claimed to be the best available in this country. Each pie is arranged for symmetry and color, although a typical pizza-hound may think that the kitchen has begun to run out of stock.

In spite of the miniature size, the flavor of the pizzas is quite good. The Atomica with sauce, mozzarella, olives, sausage and red pepper sneak-attacked us with a lip-burning spiciness that belied its demure appearance. The sausage has a delicate, delicious flavor.

We used a balsamic vinegar/olive oil puddle for dipping our slices of Pontiff pie which was scantily clad in fresh spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella and feta cheese. The flavors are well-balanced. The crust has excellent "bite," although a bit more of it and of the cheese would be nice.

After the pizzas vanished, we ordered Limoncello Tartuffo and Tiramisu. Tartuffo is lemon gelato with a lemon syrup center, rolled in powdered lemon sugar. The gelato is made by Travore in Nampa and flavorings are imported from Italy. The result is absolutely delightful. Proto's Tiramisu is made in-house and the recipe is probably kept in a safe. It has a unique quality--sensual, creamy, yet not overly sweet.

Proto's is a lovely place to have a light meal and a glass of your favorite quality beverage. The gentle thrum of music does not compete with conversation, the silenced television can be seen across the room but does not dominate the environment, and the staff is highly professional yet full of heart and energy. We were distinctly impressed with the service, the attentiveness and dedication of the manager and the comfortable ambience of the establishment.

I would happily return for a libation and the pleasure of being treated like royalty while I savor my Tiramisu, but if dinner for four plus drinks could total $120-plus ... well, that better be one hell of a pizza.

--Denise "Jake" Freeman is the queen of dining companions.

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