Circle of Arte

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In an unassuming building in Midtown, near the southern end of Central Park, Bruno Cilio has opened a shiny white restaurant that looks more Museum of Modern Art than rustic pizza joint. But where any obvious authenticity fails, once you delve into PizzArte, the food and vibe prove pure Italian. For example, the walls display over a dozen paintings of the Neapolitan volcano Mount Vesuvius done by Italian artist Lello Esposito, most of the heavily accented staff comes from Italy, and the gorgeous pizza oven was shipped over from the mother country and rebuilt here by the artisan.

Food-wise, the actual pizzas remain true to the Neapolitan style and were some of the best I have tried in the city. The trick, says Cilio, is in the oven and in the ingredients, most of which he imports straight from the source. You can really taste the difference in the caprese salad ($8.50), a beautifully plated dish of bright red and yellow tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and perfect, light wedges of fresh Buffalo mozzarella. The insalata ($14) comes with their special house-made burrata, a creamy orb, oozing with milk and silky smooth, which pairs winningly with artistic triangles of watermelon, buttery sprigs of mache, or lamb's lettuce, and tomato to create a salty-sweet palette that combines crunchy with supple textures.

We started the night with a bottle of white lambrusco ($9 a glass, $33 a bottle), a rounder, fuller bubbly than your basic prosecco. This went well with the prosciutto crudo con fichi ($9), a plate of 18-month cured meat with black mission figs and salty shaved Parmigianino Reggiano. It also complemented the tartara di tonno ($11.50), a dish that really surprised me as the espresso-sized mound of yellowfin tuna tartar melded wonderfully with diced, wood-fired, roasted tomato, giving the raw, fresh fish a smoky tinge. Off the bar menu, we sampled the bruschetta con burrata e tartufo ($9), an airy crostini made with pizza dough bread and topped with cheese and black truffle pesto that pleasantly overrode my umami senses with each nibble.

These bites proved great, but the pizzas are the real stars. On one balmy evening, I headed down to PizzArte to meet Cilio and sample his favorite pies. First on the list: the verace ($19), a classic combo of San Marzano tomatoes, Buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil. With the first chew, I knew Cilio and his team of Italian chefs were on the right track. The dough had the proper tinge of sweetness to it, a nice char on the top of the pliable crust, and the dough holding the ingredients proved thin, with just enough thickness to secure the toppings. Fantastico.

Another aspect that shouldn't be missed: the extensive list of affordable Italian wines. A bottle of the dark, berrytinged '06 Produttori del Barbaresco ($55) paired nicely with the pizzas, like the diavola ($16). This pie created a completely different flavor sensation than the verace. Where the latter came out light and sweet, the diavola had a kick from thin strips of spicy salame. It maintained a brightness from the tomatoes but contained a heartier mouthfeel. Their namesake, the PizzaArte ($21), also leans on the savory side with meaty bits of speck thrown in with zucchini blossoms. The main difference with this pie is the use of burrata cheese and no tomato, leaving the dish a bit denser. I had my doubts about the tartufata ($23) because of the Gorgonzola. I would love to love that cheese, but I have found few that agree with my taste buds. However, on this pizza, mixed with pulverized walnuts, mozzarella and black truffle, the Gorgonzola sang, and for a moment I understood what the fuss was about. More of a dessert pizza, the dish came out sweet, savory and bursting with earthy goodness, a combo I can't recommend enough.

For dessert, I adored the martini glass filled with fluffy, coffee-tinged tiramisu ($9), a not-too-sweet treat that balanced nicely with the fruity Brachetto D'Acqui ($10 a glass). In the end, what makes PizzArte work can be found in the pure joy and enthusiasm Cilio puts into his restaurant. A lawyer by day, he spends every night here, eating the food, talking to customers and really being a part of the business. When you talk to him, his excitement over his goods shines through, and with each bite and sip of wine, you can tell he feels at home and wants to share that comfort with his guests.

>> PizzArte

69 W. 55th St. (betw. 5th and 6th Aves.),

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